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Breaking Too Many Eggs?

It has been said that you can’t bake a cake without breaking a few eggs. But breaking too many of them into the mixing bowl results in a cake that doesn’t taste very good.

Some people in Wheeling worry that city officials are ready to break too many eggs — half a million dollars’ worth of them — for land on which to construct a new public safety building.

Now, as the editorial to the left of this column suggests, the whole idea probably ought to be put on the back burner for now. It isn’t a good idea to commit to a major taxpayer investment just as one of Wheeling’s biggest employers seems poised to close its doors.

Postponing a decision would give city officials time to rework what has developed as one of the most controversial aspects of the public safety building plan. It is the city’s proposal to spend $534,000 for land on which to erect the facility.

Located on 19th Street, the property is the site of an old warehouse owned by businessman and Wheeling Human Rights Commission Chairman Frank Calabrese. Under the plan, the city would not pay him directly. Instead, it would make $53,400 annual donations for 10 years to a charitable foundation Calabrese says he has established.

Calabrese’s company, Americo Inc., purchased the property in 1997, for $40,000. The Ohio County Assessor’s Office has appraised the land and building at a total of $43,300.

Some insist that appraisal, which is supposed to reflect the fair market value, is too low. Fine. Assume the county appraisers are way off and quadruple their estimate to $173,200. That still nets Calabrese a tidy profit of $360,800.

There’s more: Of the $14.5 million city officials want to spend on the project, $12.5 million would be for the building itself. About half a million would go to Calabrese’s foundation, leaving $1.5 million for site preparation. That sounds like a lot, until you consider the old warehouse could be chock-full of asbestos and perhaps other hazardous materials requiring special handling in demolition. What’s in the ground underneath the warehouse is another question.

Bottom line: About $2 million of the cost of the public safety building would be for the site. Some people think that’s breaking too many eggs to bake the cake.

Don’t get critics of the proposal wrong. Very, very few argue against constructing a new building to house the Wheeling police department and fire department headquarters. Almost undoubtedly, a lot of money will have to be spent on fire department facilities elsewhere, if the new building isn’t constructed.

It’s the proposed cost of the new facility, and the plan to charge people who work in town a “user fee” to cover it. Council members seem primed to proceed with the user fee, which would cost every person working in the city $104 a year.

Half of that would go to the public safety building. The other half would be used for unspecified infrastructure work.

Making their case to the public might be easier for city officials if they hadn’t taken the stance they did last year on the public safety building. Then, they asked voters to approve higher taxes to pay for a $20 million facility. It couldn’t be done for less, taxpayers were told (the referendum failed to garner the 60% majority required).

Now, however, it somehow is possible to do the project for $5.5 million less. You can see why there would be some skeptics.

Delaying action on the matter, as suggested in the editorial at left, could give city officials time to negotiate with Calabrese — as they have said may be possible. Trouble is, if that’s the only place the public safety building can be constructed, Calabrese has the city over a barrel.

And if it isn’t the only practical site, some taxpayers will wonder why there wasn’t more discussion of the alternatives.

Oh, by the way: Municipal elections are scheduled for next May.

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

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