User Fee Not a Good Idea

Telling nearly half the people who voted in the most recent election that they were wrong and, as a result, you’ll be going over their heads is never a good idea for a public official. Perhaps that’s why we haven’t heard talk of a user fee in Wheeling since early last month.

On Nov. 6, Wheeling voters were asked to approve higher property taxes to cover $22 million in police and fire department improvements. Nearly all the money was to go toward building a new public safety building.

Most voters — 5,060 of them, according to election night returns — said yes to the plan. But the ballot referendum required 60-percent approval to pass, so the 4,337 no votes carried the day.

It’s obvious, I suspect even to many of the no voters, that both police and fire station improvements are needed. City officials will continue trying to find a way to make that happen, Mayor Glenn Elliott said two days after the election. “I think the fact a clear majority of residents spoke out in favor of this is something we have to look at, going forward.”

Yes, indeed. But how one looks at it is crucial.

Elliott speculated on some possibilities. One is to find a new location for the police department, then find a way to improve fire departments later.

But the mayor’s second option was establishing a “user fee” in Wheeling. Other communities, including Weirton, Charleston and Huntington, have them.

In this case, the fee would be paid by people who work in Wheeling but don’t live here. The rate could be one or two dollars a week.

Don’t expect local businesses, including those considering expansions, to like the idea. And don’t expect businesses considering new operations in Wheeling to like it, either.

For one thing, it would be a new burden on businesses, which would have to handle the accounting work of paying user fees. For another, the fees would be money out of their employees’ — or their — pockets.

City officials ought to emulate their predecessors, who considered user fees in 2014. The idea was dropped in favor of saving money by reducing the municipal payroll slightly.

Much the same thing could happen now — by finding an alternative to the $20 million new public safety building that was part of the $22 million ballot package.

Cost was on the minds of many voters. They thought $20 million was just too much.

It didn’t help that the city’s request went before voters just months after they and others in Ohio County approved a big tax increase to provide $42.2 million for public school improvements (part of a $75.5 million package that includes state money). As some people pointed out, voters on Nov. 6 may have been in no mood for new taxes for anything.

I disagree with that excuse. As I’ve pointed out many times, voters in our area of West Virginia almost invariably do vote for higher taxes if they see a need. Forty-seven percent of those voting on the public safety plan just didn’t see $20 million worth of need. It’s that simple.

Elliott noted that, in his words, “a clear majority” of people agreed with the plan. True enough. Most political candidates would be happy to win by a 53-47 margin — but they’d also worry about what they could do to sway some of the 47 percenters.

In this situation, the answer is to find a cheaper solution for the police and fire departments. Then, if necessary go back to the voters. If they see a need to spend whatever amount is requested, at least 60 percent will say yes.

What cheaper solution, you ask? I’ve heard some suggestions during the past couple of weeks, and they may make sense. Some involve utilizing existing buildings rather than building one or more new structures.

Politics is the art of compromise, it’s been said. Compromise isn’t telling 47 percent of the voters that your reaction to them rejecting a new tax is to find another way of increasing taxes.

Myer can be reached at: mmyer@theintelligencer.net.

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