Wheeling Leaders Prep for Another Dog Fight

WHEELING — City officials may have to fight even harder this year to keep the Greyhound Breeding Development Fund in place, as they’re not sure they can depend on Gov. Jim Justice to veto legislation that would eliminate the fund, as he did last year.

“I fully expect that legislators from other parts of the state will attempt to fill budget gaps by taking money from greyhound racing. It’s important to point out that taxpayers do not subsidize greyhound racing,” Wheeling Vice Mayor Chad Thalman said.

Thalman and Mayor Glenn Elliott said they fear passage of such legislation could eventually cause Wheeling Island Hotel-Casino-Racetrack to leave the city limits.

If this ever happens, the city likely would lose millions of dollars per year in tax revenue and related economic activity.

“Nobody has told me that Wheeling Island Hotel-Casino-Racetrack would leave the city if such legislation were approved, but it is my understanding that the casino industry sought the so-called ‘decoupling’ language during consideration of the Greyhound Breeding Development Fund legislation last year,” Elliott said.

Last year, both chambers of the GOP-led Legislature passed a bill to end the greyhound fund, which provides about $15 million annually for breeders who run dogs at Wheeling Island and the Mardi Gras Casino and Resort, near Charleston. Justice, then a Democrat, vetoed the Republican legislation during a trip to West Virginia Independence Hall in Wheeling.

However, during an August appearance with President Donald Trump, Justice declared he was switching affiliation to Republican, giving the GOP control of the legislative and executive branches of state government.

“As for the governor, I can only take him at his word. During a visit to Wheeling when advocating for the road bond referendum, he intimated that we should not count on him to veto any such greyhound legislation in 2018,” Elliott said. “Obviously, we hope that this legislation never sees the light of day, but if it does, we will be advocating against it,” he added.

Elliott and Thalman also said they support the legalization of sports betting in West Virginia.

“Sports betting will likely be something that is discussed in Charleston and has the potential to benefit the casino,” Thalman said.

In another matter, city leaders successfully lobbied last year to expand the state credit for historic preservation from 10 percent to 25 percent. After some fear the federal 20-percent credit would be eliminated in the recent Republican tax cut legislation, Congress ultimately preserved the credit.

Elliott said he hopes the Legislature will remove the $30 million annual cap officials placed on the program, which could help developers renovate structures such as the former Wheeling-Pittsburgh Steel building.

“In the first few days of 2018, we have seen multiple projects filed at the State Historic Preservation Office for tax credit consideration, including several projects from Wheeling,” Elliott said. “I don’t think the state or any city wants to be in the position of telling a developer not to invest tens of millions of dollars in a particular community simply because of an arbitrary cap imposed by the Legislature.”