Frank Calabrese told Wheeling Human Rights Commission members Monday he's willing to do whatever it takes to make sure they don't lose the ability to enforce the city's anti-discrimination laws due to a proposed funding cut come July 1.
Calabrese - a city resident, businessman and American Civil Liberties Union of West Virginia board member - offered to reach out to Gov. Earl Ray Tomblin and state and federal lawmakers in hopes they will put pressure on city officials to reconsider.
He also offered to seek funding from non-government sources, though it remains unclear whether the commission could retain its law enforcement function as a privately funded entity.
Photo by Ian Hicks
ABOVE: Frank Calabrese, left, speaks during Monday’s Wheeling Human Rights Commission meeting as Commissioner the Rev. Ralph Dunkin listens.
With Wheeling ending the past several fiscal years with cash carryovers of $1 million or greater, Calabrese said he cannot accept that the decision to slash the commission's budget from almost $66,000 to $7,000 is purely financial, and he called on city officials to explain their reasoning in greater detail.
"There's probably no more important business for the city of Wheeling than to take care of the rights of its citizens. ... It's not a question of lack of funds," he said. "Absolutely not. ... Give me a reason or give me the money."
For almost 20 years, the commission's entire budget has come from federal Community Development Block Grant funds.
Citing a trend of declining entitlement amounts and an anticipated reduction of at least another 8 percent for the coming year, City Manager Robert Herron has proposed a change in how the city allocates its share - decreasing the HRC's budget and distributing the difference among several nonprofit organizations, including Wheeling Health Right, the Soup Kitchen of Greater Wheeling, the Seeing Hand Association and the Greater Wheeling Coalition for the Homeless.
Anticipating the potential loss of CDBG funding, commissioners made an unsuccessful plea for inclusion in Wheeling's general fund budget.
Garrett told commissioners she has forwarded three potential cases to the state HRC, noting she could not "in good conscience" accept those complaints because it's unlikely they can be resolved by the close of the current budget year. Once someone has filed with the city HRC, they cannot refile with the state commission or the federal Equal Employment Opportunity Commission.
In other business, commissioners voted unanimously in support of a petition from the advocacy group Fairness West Virginia urging the state Legislature to add sexual orientation and gender identity to the list of reasons for discrimination explicitly prohibited by law in matters of housing, employment and public accommodations.
That list already includes race, creed, disability and sex.
Both houses are considering versions of a bill that would do just that. House Bill 2856, which has 11 co-sponsors including Delegate Ryan Ferns, D-Ohio, is before the Energy, Industry and Labor, Economic Development and Small Business Committee, while Senate Bill 486, with nine co-sponsors including Senate President Jeff Kessler, D-Marshall, Sen. Rocky Fitzsimmons, D-Ohio, and Sen. Larry Edgell, D-Wetzel, is before the Senate Judiciary Committee.
The Wheeling Human Rights Commission is next scheduled to meet at 3 p.m. April 29 on the third floor of the courthouse annex, 51 16th St.