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$2 User Fee Mulled by Wheeling City Council To Fund Proposed Public Safety Building

Photo provided by the City of Wheeling A rendering demonstrates what the proposed $14.5 million public safety building at 19th and Jacobs streets would look like if Wheeling City Council moves forward with the plan.

WHEELING — Members of Wheeling City Council are considering enacting a $2 city service fee to fund a proposed public safety building in East Wheeling.

The service fee, also known as a user fee, would function as a weekly tax on people who work in Wheeling and would pay for the $14.5 million facility intended to house the city’s police and fire departments.

Several members of council said Friday they think enacting the fee is the best course of action for the city, while one member, Councilwoman Wendy Scatterday, said she doesn’t yet support the move.

“I think the service fee is the way to go now,” Councilman Dave Palmer said. “The public safety building is a need that we have. The first time we tried to solve the need, we had to go back to the drawing board. I think we’ve done our due diligence, and I’m like everybody else, I don’t want to pay $2, but the need is greater than the want.”

Council will likely vote on whether to approve the 52,000-square-foot public safety building, set to be built at the site of a vacant warehouse on 19th Street, at its Aug. 20 meeting, Mayor Glenn Elliott said.

Then, council could vote on enacting the user fee at its first meeting in September, he said.

If approved, the weekly $2 city service fee would go into effect on Jan. 1, 2020, and apply to all full-time employees, part-time employees and self-employed people who regularly report to work at a physical location or work from home within the city limits, Elliott said.

Of the $2 fee, at least half of the proceeds would be set aside specifically for debt service on the new public safety building, he said. The rest would be used for infrastructure improvements throughout Wheeling.

In addition, the ordinance for the fee would include a sunset clause that eliminates the fee once the city pays off the debt service, likely in 20 to 25 years, Elliott said.

Palmer, who was previously a “holdout” on the fee, said he now supports it because it’s a reduction from the $3 fee council members originally discussed. The $14.5 million cost of the new East Wheeling building is also a reduction from the original $22 million plan to build the facility at 10th and Market streets.

“City Council took a big step back from its initial public safety building concept and revisited prior options and investigated additional options,” Elliott said. “What has emerged is, in my mind, a very responsible compromise proposal to build a more affordable building that still satisfies all the criteria we had in mind for a new public safety building.”

Officials outlined several reasons why they support the city service fee compared to other alternatives, such as a property tax levy. Wheeling voters considered such a levy for a public safety building in November, and 54 percent voted for it, falling short of the 60 percent needed for the levy to pass.

For one, the fee would apply to workers who don’t live in Wheeling but benefit from its city services, Elliott said. In addition, it would exempt senior citizens on fixed incomes and others who don’t work, he said.

“In many respects, a city service fee is more equitable across the community than a property tax levy,” Elliott said. “One of the complaints City Council members heard about the proposed property tax levy is that it would have asked the same property owners who have been absorbing property tax levies for local education initiatives to fund the cost of a new public safety building. Many of these property owners are retired or living on fixed incomes.”

Councilman Ty Thorngate echoed Elliott, stating that council heard complaints that the property tax increase wouldn’t fairly distribute the cost of the building among residents and would hinder retirees.

“After months of discussion and analysis, a city service fee seems to be the best path toward eliminating each of those concerns,” Thorngate said.

Meanwhile, Scatterday said she thinks Wheeling should ensure it has considered all other funding sources before moving forward with a city service fee. The city should demonstrate it examined and refined all budget allocations for maximum efficiency in funding the building, she said.

“Improving the working conditions and providing efficient, safe, productive workplaces is a necessity for everyone and particularly for our first responders,” Scatterday said. “To date, the efforts required to identify savings across the City’s budget and find additional funding has not been made a priority.”

“The city needs to do its part to demonstrate it’s done, or is doing, everything possible to find and use those savings in addition to seeking grant funding and other philanthropic donations toward the public safety improvements,” she said.

Scatterday further said she’s “not inclined” to vote in favor of the fee at a future council meeting until the city shows it’s considered all funding sources.

“I’m in the minority with that viewpoint, therefore the likelihood of efforts being made to find additional funding is minimal, unless others decide to agree to make it a priority,” she said.

Vice Mayor Chad Thalman noted that Wheeling is one of the only larger cities in West Virginia that doesn’t have a city service fee. Weirton, Parkersburg, Morgantown, Fairmont, Huntington and Charleston have such fees ranging from $2 to $5.

“Just about everybody who has toured the police and fire headquarters would agree new and additional space is needed. … Even though the original levy didn’t pass, the needs of our first responders did not go away,” Thalman said. “I’m proud of the way City Council has listened to the community and made public safety and keeping Wheeling safe a high priority.”

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