Wheeling User Fee Brought Up Again

WHEELING – Councilman Ken Imer on Tuesday again suggested a new tax to avert cuts to Wheeling’s municipal workforce, but one of his colleagues believes any such move should be tied to paying down the city’s pension liability.

City Manager Robert Herron has proposed cutting about 20 mostly vacant positions from the city’s budget – including 11 in the police department – to save more than $800,000 this fiscal year. If the city fills all its employment vacancies, he estimates the city will end the year with a $250,000 deficit.

Specifics of how a user fee would work in Wheeling haven’t been discussed, but other cities in West Virginia that have enacted them, such as Charleston, Huntington and Weirton, tax each person who works within city limits a set amount per week, usually $2 or $3.

Councilwoman Gloria Delbrugge and Councilman Robert “Herk” Henry each have indicated they would support enacting a user fee. Councilman Don Atkinson said last week he’s not committed one way or the other, but believes the idea is worthy of discussion.

Following Tuesday’s City Council meeting, Vice Mayor Eugene Fahey said he’s not sure a user fee is appropriate to fix the city’s immediate budget problems, but indicated he would consider supporting such a tax if the proceeds were dedicated solely to funding the city’s police and fire pension programs.

As of June 30, the city’s police and fire pension programs were 37 percent and 28 percent funded, respectively. According to West Virginia law, all municipalities with pensions that are less than 75 percent funded must increase their contributions by 7 percent annually.

Those increases are beginning to stack up quickly for Wheeling. This fiscal year, the city will pay $3.84 million out of its general fund into the police and fire pension programs. By 2018, that figure will rise to $4.7 million, and by 2023, to $6.6 million.

“The discussion we’re having now, we’re going to have again next year and the year after that and the year after that because we’ve never addressed the root of the problem. … We can’t fix the budget until we fix the pensions,” Fahey said.

Councilman David Miller, meanwhile, said he’s against any user fee that would impact Wheeling residents. He said he would be open to such a tax only if it’s imposed exclusively on those who work in the city but live elsewhere.

“As we sit here today, I am not supporting any increase in any fees to the residents of Wheeling in any way, shape or form. … I don’t think the answer is putting more burden on the people,” he said.

Mayor Andy McKenzie said it was too soon to say whether he would support a user fee, adding no concrete proposal for one has been advanced yet.

Proponents of user fees say they provide a way to tax those who take advantage of city services but live elsewhere. Opponents of user fees argue they disproportionately affect low-income workers, as a business executive with a six-figure salary would be taxed the same amount as a fast-food worker earning minimum wage.

In other business, council voted unanimously to accept a $40,000 grant from the U.S. Department of Justice to help pay for prevention resource officers in the city’s schools. That’s up slightly from the $30,000 the city received last year and represents a return to 2012’s funding level – but still much lower than the $115,000 Wheeling received through the grant in 2010. As federal funding has declined, the Ohio County Board of Education has picked up the rest of the tab, including about $200,000 for the fiscal year that ended June 30.

Sgt. Tom Howard, president of the Wheeling Fraternal Order of Police Lodge 38 and the resource officer at Bridge Street Middle School, said he’s pleased with the increase in funding but believes the city deserves more. He said Wheeling officers have been named West Virginia PRO of the Year three out of the last four years, including Sgt. John Schultz this year.

“The parents are for it. They really want it,” Howard said of the PRO program.

Council also voted unanimously to adopt design review guidelines for properties surrounding Wheeling’s historic Centre Market. Now, all owners of property with Market Street addresses between 20th and 23rd streets will need to obtain certificates of appropriateness from the city’s Historic Landmarks Commission before undertaking any exterior renovations visible from the street. Design guidelines are based on U.S. Department of the Interior standards for historic properties.

Nobody will be forced to renovate their property to comply with the guidelines, as existing designs are grandfathered in under the plan.

Council also approved spending $144,000 with Wilson, Kozicki & Gwynn of Wheeling for audit services covering the period from July 1, 2012 through June 30; $78,446 with USI Insurance Services of Norfolk, Va., for excess liability workers’ compensation insurance; and contributing $40,000 to the Wheeling Symphony Orchestra toward the cost of putting on the Independence Day concert and fireworks show at Heritage Port.

Council’s next regular meeting will be at 5:30 p.m. Aug. 19.