When Wheeling Mayor Andy McKenzie took office, one of his pledges was to "right-size" city government. Though the city's population had declined steadily for many years, the cost of government continued to escalate, he noted.
But a relatively modest proposal to reduce spending, unveiled this week, has drawn fire.
Earlier this year, City Council instructed City Manager Robert Herron to prepare a package of ideas to cut spending. At the time, Herron warned some of his recommendations might be viewed as "dramatic."
This week, Herron released his proposals. As we have reported, his goal is to slice about $1.1 million a year from the city budget.
To do that, Herron would eliminate about 20 jobs from the municipal payroll, through attrition and by not filling existing vacancies.
Much of the burden would fall on the police department, which would lose 11 positions out of a budgeted payroll of 83. Again, no officers would be laid off; the department has 10 vacancies and another position would be cut through attrition.
Police Chief Shawn Schwertfeger is not happy about the plan. Neither are many of his officers and some members of the public, who fear it will affect public safety.
Obviously, reducing the force by 11 people will have an effect. But Schwertfeger himself put it in context. "It's not the end of the world. The city's not going to burn down or be overcome with crime," he said.
Will Schwertfeger and his officers have to rethink priorities? Of course. They may have to reduce traffic patrols, for example. But the force is composed of good men and women who will continue to do their best to keep the peace in Wheeling.
To their credit, city officials have limited increases in the cost of government in Wheeling. During fiscal 2012-13, about $31.1 million was spent out of the city general fund. The budget for this year (FY 2014-15) is $31.5 million. Compared to what is happening in Washington, that is not bad. Not bad at all.
But the $1.1 million in recommended cuts amounts to less than 4 percent of the general fund budget.
Council members will consider the proposal in the context of inevitable increases in the cost of living and doing business in Wheeling that are in large measure beyond control. The amount of money needed each year to fund city pensions will go up. Water bills are increasing because the city was ordered by the federal government to upgrade its treatment plant.
If council wants to hold down the cost of government - to "right-size" it so a smaller population does not have to bear larger burdens than those who lived here years ago did - it has no choice but to approve Herron's plan or something close to it.