Wheeling Still Considering Public Safety Building

WHEELING — City Council heard a new recommendation for what to do regarding a proposed public safety building at its meeting Tuesday: drop the current plan and consider other options.

Councilman Dave Palmer suggested the city set aside its plans for a proposed public safety building that would be built on a current parking lot at the corner of Market Street and 10th Street.

After a tax levy to fund the $22 million project failed to gain the 60 percent of votes it needed to pass in November, city officials have discussed other options to fund the project, such as a user fee that would tax people who work in Wheeling.

“I’d like to recommend that we shelf the public safety building at this time and explore other locations and opportunities to replace the facilities for the police and fire departments or repair current facilities,” Palmer said at Tuesday’s meeting.

Palmer further requested that Mayor Glenn Elliott and City Manager Robert Herron have the city’s economic development specialist work with the police and fire chiefs to identify or eliminate potential sites for rehabilitation or construction.

“I believe in doing so that we will show citizens that we are using due diligence in this process,” Palmer said.

On Friday, Herron said the city will honor Palmer’s request and consider other sites, but noted that the city had already worked to consider all potential properties.

“In planning for the public safety building, the city looked at every strategically located building or property that we could find,” Herron said. “We were and continue to be open to alternatives.”

Similarly, Elliott said he has not ruled any option in or out regarding the public safety building.

“That said, it is important to keep in mind that the proposal for a new public safety building at 10th and Market Streets was the end result of a considerable amount of discussion and analysis of smaller-scale, more piecemeal options,” he said. “I would not expect to see further analysis and consideration lead to a different outcome.”

Chiefs of both Wheeling’s police and fire departments previously said both of their departments are in significant need of more space, and that their current, limited facilities are hindering their work. The proposed public safety building would consolidate both departments into one new building.

In November’s election, 54 percent of Wheeling voters cast ballots in favor the public safety building, falling short of the 60 percent needed for the tax levy to pass. Subsequently, city officials discussed the possibility of funding the building through a user fee, citing the majority as a reason to still pursue the building.

The user fee would deduct money from paychecks of those who work in the city. For example, a $1 user fee would result in a $1 deduction from someone’s payroll each week, or $52 a year.

Though Thalman and Elliott have spoken in favor of the user fee, Palmer said he doesn’t support it currently.

“To take a user fee and pay for a building voters said no to is a disservice to the citizens,” said Palmer, who represents the 6th Ward. “I believe we are a body that is empowered to make decisions, but I don’t think this is one of them… It’s ok to fail but we have to show the citizens, in my opinion, that we are trying.”

Members of council agreed and disagreed with Palmer’s recommendation to varying extents. For one, Councilman Ken Imer said he agreed with Palmer.

Councilwoman Wendy Scatterday said that, though the city should consider all options, the proposed project appears to be best plan.

“There are other alternatives that could be implemented, however none will yield a more cost-effective solution to solving the widest range of facility, training, recruitment and retention issues that presently saddle the Police and Fire Departments,” she said.

Scatterday further said that she hasn’t made a final decision to support or oppose a user fee, which she said offers different advantages and disadvantages. The fee would apply to all workers, but wouldn’t apply to those who are elderly and on a fixed income.

“What concerns me are folks who earn a daily wage that is just making ends meet,” she said. “I have asked the City Manager to provide every alternative possible including possible exemptions for part-time and persons with an annual income below certain rates.”

Councilman Ty Thorngate said that he recognizes the need for the public safety building and similarly said all options are on the table for the city.

“Over the last 12 months, I’ve watched Chief Helms and Chief Schwertfeger comb through the city looking for buildings or locations that would accommodate their specific needs and I trust their judgment that the current location and plan are the best possible solutions,” Thorngate said.

Elliott said the issue largely comes down to interpreting the results of the election, or whether to listen to the 46 percent who voted “no” or the 54 percent who voted “yes.”

“There are no easy choices here, and when it comes down to it, members of City Council need to vote their conscience based on what they believe to be best for our first responders and the community at large,” he said.

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