Cut Costs, Try a New Vote

If you are among those who last fall voted against a tax levy to construct a new public safety building in Wheeling, I have a question for you: What would it take to change your mind?

A 10 percent reduction in the cost of the proposed structure? Twenty percent? Thirty? Forty? Even more?

Would you like a chance to vote again if city officials managed to get the project cost below your threshold?

Perhaps the most intriguing thing Wheeling Mayor Glenn Elliott said during his State of the City speech Thursday involved the public safety building.

Let’s review: Last year, city officials said Wheeling needs a new building for use by the police and fire departments. Some fire stations require expensive repairs. The police department, located in the City-County Building, doesn’t have enough space.

It was suggested a new building could be erected on what now is a city-owned parking lot at 10th and Market streets. City officials displayed an artist’s rendering of what the facility might look like, emphasizing the design might change.

More than $20 million would be needed to make the public safety building a reality, it was said. So, on Nov. 6, Wheeling voters were asked to approve a new property tax levy to bring in about $22 million. Of that, about $1 million was to be used to repair existing fire stations. Another $500,000 was earmarked for a new fire truck.

Unofficial returns from the referendum had 5,060 voters agreeing to the levy, with 4,337 against it. That is about 53.8 percent in favor.

But in West Virginia, such tax levies require 60 percent approval, so this one failed.

Police Chief Shawn Schwertfeger and Fire Chief Larry Helms still say their departments need better facilities. Elliott agrees with them.

He and some members of Wheeling City Council have been talking of establishing a “user fee” like those in force in several other Mountain State cities. The fee, perhaps $3 a week, would be paid by people who work in Wheeling, including those who do not live in the city.

That has been controversial. At least two members of city council have expressed reservations. Some people who work here but live elsewhere, along with a substantial number of business owners and managers, have told city officials they don’t like the idea.

That brings us back to Tuesday’s speech. Elliott reiterated his desire to construct a new public safety building, telling listeners, “For decadee, we have asked our first responders to provide first-class services while operating out of undersized, antiquated facilities.” That needs to change, he said.

Then he got to the intriguing part. Elliott said he has asked City Manager Robert Herron “to reconsider the various alternative sites (for the building” considered last year. I have also asked that he revisit the proposed concept for the new public safety building to identify areas where cost savings could be achieved.”

Herron’s report is expected within the next few weeks.

There are all sorts of possibilities. One is remodeling an existing structure. Another is finding ways to cut the cost of the building discussed last year.

Surely there are ways to attain the objective for less, perhaps a lot less, than $20 million.

After last year’s referendum, Vice Mayor Chad Thalman said going back to voters this year “is not something we’ve considered.”

They should — but carefully.

Establishing the user fee and plowing ahead would leave a bad taste in many mouths. It could affect economic development in the future adversely. It’s a bad idea.

Finding ways to cut the cost enough to change slightly fewer than 300 minds, based on last year’s referendum, would be a much better path.

The question is, how much has to be shaved off the $20 million to do that? Wish Herron and his red pen good luck.

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

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