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Wheeling Mayor, Fire Chief Blast West Virginia User Fee Bill

Say Measure Would Endanger Public Safety Building Project

File photo

WHEELING — Mayor Glenn Elliott took the floor of the Wheeling City Council meeting Tuesday — the first session to be held in person since last fall — and called out members of the West Virginia Legislature pushing for the elimination of municipal use fees.

Members of Wheeling City Council, which for the greater part of the past year has met virtually because of the COVID-19 pandemic, returned to council chambers Tuesday for the first time this year, and in fact, for the first time in many months.

While remarks from council members were relatively sparse, the mayor spoke at length in opposition of the recent effort in Charleston to eliminate municipal user fees. The city of Wheeling approved a $2 weekly user fee for people who work in the city in 2019, and the fee was implemented last year with the intention of raising funds for new headquarters for Wheeling’s police and fire departments, as well as funds for important infrastructure projects throughout the city.

A bill that recently was passed by a state House Political Subdivision Committee would exempt all non-residents of cities from having municipal user fees deducted from their paychecks. Since it’s passage, Elliott has been outspoken about the negative effects this could bring to Wheeling and to other cities throughout West Virginia.

“I’ve spoken to mayors across the state about this, in particular some of the mayors of the larger cities — Huntington, Charleston and Parkersburg — and they’ve made it very clear, if this goes into effect, they will have to lay off police officers,” Elliott said Tuesday. “Here in the city of Wheeling, our police force is not funded through the user fee, but obviously, our new facility is, as is our new fire department headquarters, for which will hopefully be picking a location very soon.”

The city is completing design work to convert the Valley Professional Building on the former Ohio Valley Medical Center campus into a new headquarters for the Wheeling Police Department. That project is already in motion, and user fees are helping pay for the work.

The city fire department wants to make needed improvements to existing fire stations and build its new headquarters. But the city is counting on user fee revenues to pay for that.

Wheeling Fire Chief Larry Helms echoed Elliott’s sentiments about the bill.

“We’re getting close to implementing everything that we wanted to try to get done,” Helms said. “This would be catastrophic if (user fees were removed).”

Helms and Elliott both said the police and fire headquarters are necessary for public safety.

“But if this legislation becomes law, funding for that goes away, and we’d have to find other ways to fund those projects,” Elliott said. “These are things that are absolute needs. … These are not fluff.

“I guess what frustrates me about this is there are a lot of people in our legislature who self identify as conservative, but yet they seem to be dead set on opposing local control at every step along the way,” Elliott said. “I’m not sure what they’re so afraid of.”

Elliott said other recent efforts by some state legislators are intended to tie the hands of local governments, a philosophy that goes against traditional conservative values.

“Cities are not the enemies,” he said. “But we see legislation being discussed down there to prevent cities from having non-discrimination ordinances. There was a bill that passed the House last week which told cities they can’t ban straws when I don’t think any city in the state has even talked about banning straws.”

There is a sense somehow that cities are a problem in the state, Elliott said, asserting that this is very backward thinking.

“Let me be very clear here — the four members of the legislature who represent the city of Wheeling in some way are not the problem,” he noted.

In fact, Delegates Erika Storch, R-Ohio, and Shawn Fluharty, D-Ohio, both voted against this bill in committee last week, the mayor said, and state Sens. William Ihlenfeld, D-Ohio, and Ryan Weld, R-Brooke, are supportive as well. Elliott noted that Weld has vowed to oppose the bill if it comes before the state Senate.

“My question for our friends in the legislature is why do they view us so skeptically?” Elliott asked. “Why do they not trust local elected officials to make decisions for what is best for their communities?”

No one loves the user fee, Elliott said, but citizens see that the money is being wisely spent on necessary community improvements and investments.

“I would hope that this legislation dies and along with it the same sense that cities are somehow the problem,” Elliott said. “We’re going to do everything we can to try to stop this legislation. If they want to have a conversation about ways the cities can more effectively or efficiently raise funds, I’m happy to travel to Charleston and have that conversation with them.

“But the approach we’re seeing in this legislative session is backwards and misguided.”

Helms added that public safety across the state would be affected if this legislation goes into effect.

“This would be problematic for all of us,” Helms said. “Speaking on behalf of the Public Fire Chiefs Association of West Virginia, all of my chiefs would be affected, with the exception of two. … Some cities would have to actually lay off personnel, and we just don’t want to see that kind of thing happen.”

Helms said he is thankful that local delegates are “on our side” and that voices are being raised across the state against this recent action.

“I just wish — at the state level — a little more research would be done with the local level to see how badly that’s going to affect us,” Helms said. “As the mayor said, these projects are not ‘fluff.’ They’re things that need to be done.”

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