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User fee to avert cuts gains traction in Wheeling

WHEELING, W.Va. — With some members of Wheeling City Council vehemently opposed to reducing the size of the city’s police force, the idea of enacting a new tax to raise additional revenue and avert the cuts appears to be gaining traction.

Councilman Ken Imer in July brought up enacting what’s known as a user fee, possibly $1 per week, which would be deducted from the paychecks of all those who work within city limits. The discussion followed City Manager Robert Herron’s proposal to cut more than $800,000 from the 2014-15 budget by eliminating about 20 full-time positions from the budget. Most of the cuts will come by leaving current vacancies unfilled, with others to come through attrition.

Herron has estimated the city would face a $250,000 shortfall by the end of the fiscal year if it filled all its vacancies, while his plan would leave the city with a more than $600,000 surplus, providing breathing room to absorb expected cost increases next year such as pensions and employee health insurance.

Cuts would come from several areas, including public works, sanitation and the fire department, but the most controversial part of Herron’s plan has been the 11 positions that would be cut from the police department. At about three officers per 1,000 residents, Wheeling’s police force is larger than just about every other city of its size.

Among those in support of a user fee is Councilwoman Gloria Delbrugge, who has been the most vocal opponent of Herron’s proposed cuts. She said a large percentage of the city’s workforce lives elsewhere, but still uses the city’s roads and benefits from its police and fire protection.

“I don’t think a user fee is a terrible thing. I think it’s a wise choice,” Delbrugge said. “I’ve been for a user fee for the last several years. I know Weirton has it, Charleston has it. … Over in Ohio, Martins Ferry has it, Bellaire has it. I don’t think anything’s wrong with it.”

It’s not clear exactly how much money such a tax would generate for Wheeling. Weirton’s $2-per-week tax deducted from the paychecks of all who work there brought in about $840,000 during the 2013-14 fiscal year for that city.

The new tax talk comes less than a year after City Council enacted a half-percent sales tax on all purchases made within city limits.

Councilman Robert “Herk” Henry, who also is against cutting the police department, said he, too, would support a new tax.

“That’s going to affect me, too, because I have a part-time job. I would have to pay it, too,” Henry said.

Although he’s most concerned about the cuts to the police department, Henry said he doesn’t favor employment reductions in any department. He said sanitation workers are stretched too thin, the city’s playgrounds already are in poor condition and he doesn’t want to see the situation get worse.

“We’re not getting it done now because we don’t have enough manpower,” Henry said.

Wheeling currently has about 370 full-time employees, more than most other cities its size.

Councilman Don Atkinson admitted he’s on the fence concerning the issue, but he didn’t rule out supporting new taxes such as a user fee.

“You don’t like to add a tax or a fee, whatever you want to call it. Anytime, you don’t want to do that,” Atkinson said. “But you’ve got to look at everything. It’s an option to look at. Other cities have done it and it seems to work well for them.”

Atkinson said he recognizes the need for the city to reduce the cost of government, but public opinion seems to be split right down the middle on the issue.

“My head’s been exploding over this for the last two weeks,” he said. “I’m still not really sure. … Cuts need to be made. Where, and when, I’m just kind of undecided on yet.”

Imer, Mayor Andy McKenzie, Vice Mayor Eugene Fahey and Councilman David Miller could not be reached for comment.

Herron declined to comment in depth on the opposition to his proposal, but he pointed out the city’s carryover of about $232,000 – only $32,000 of it unassigned because the city budgets for a $200,000 surplus on a year-to-year basis – was the lowest it’s been in many years. Just two years ago, the city ended its budget cycle with about $1 million left over.

“The past two years we’ve been talking about how our budget has tightened up. … I think council recognized that we needed to make some changes. They asked me to make some recommendations, and that’s what I’ve done,” Herron said. “We’ll work our way through them.”

City Council is scheduled to meet at noon Tuesday on the first floor of the City-County Building, 1500 Chapline St. Those wishing to address council should arrive early to sign up to speak.

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