WHEELING, W.Va. — There’s no doubt downtown Wheeling has changed, Mayor Andy McKenzie said, but he believes those who compare today’s downtown to that of a generation ago are missing something important.
For example, he said, when Williams Lea completes its planned expansion at the Stone Center on Market Plaza, the company will have about 500 people working in that building, which also houses Wheeling Jesuit University’s physical therapy program and the offices of Cattrell Companies.
“There’s now more people working in the Stone’s building that there were when Stone and Thomas was there. … And people say there’s no one downtown,” McKenzie said Wednesday while serving as the guest speaker for a joint meeting of Wheeling service organizations, including the Rotary, Lions, Kiwanis and Civitan clubs.
McKenzie – a member of the Wheeling Lions Club – addressed a number of topics during his talk, including downtown, the upcoming renovation of WesBanco Arena and changes to the city’s tax structure that will stabilize its pension obligations. Among those issues was the city’s decision to reduce business and occupation tax rates while proposing to increase the municipal sales tax from 0.5 percent to 1 percent.
McKenzie has often called the B&O tax – assessed on a business’s gross receipts, regardless of profit margin – an unfair, regressive tax.
“I would love to eliminate it, but that’s not possible,” he said. “It’s how we pay our police and fire departments.”
He believes shifting from a tax on businesses to a tax on consumption will put Wheeling in a better position moving forward because it prepares the city for the rapidly increasing amount of shopping that’s done online. The sales tax, he said, enables Wheeling to collect revenue from companies that are doing business in Wheeling but wouldn’t be paying the B&O tax because they don’t have a physical location there.
“Within the next 10 years, 80 percent of all products will be on the Internet. I have friends that buy almost 100 percent of what they buy online. … The consumer traits in this country are shifting. It’s important that we keep our businesses as competitive as possible,” McKenzie said.
Referring to City Manager Robert Herron’s comments Tuesday that if council moves forward with the sales tax increase, the city should have a $1 million budget surplus by 2016, McKenzie acknowledged some residents may wonder why the city isn’t doing even more to reduce taxes in other areas.
Wheeling has tens of millions of dollars in infrastructure needs, from aging water and sewer lines to roads bridges and sidewalks in need of repair, he said. The city wants to increase its budget stabilization fund – essentially a “rainy day” fund for emergencies – from $1 million to $2 million over the next five years, and McKenzie believes the city’s police officers and firefighters are “woefully underpaid” for the work they do.
“In government, there’s really no such thing as a cash carryover. It’s just money that you haven’t spent yet, and there are lots of things we need to spend money on,” he said.
One of the projects that involve the city spending money is the WesBanco Arena renovation. McKenzie, who estimated the total cost of the renovation at $5.5 million – city leaders originally put the figure at around $4 million last year, when they pledged to devote a portion of revenue from the new sales tax to pay off bonds for the work – said the project is needed to continue attracting quality entertainment to the city, which in turn will help the downtown.
“What we’re doing is, I think, advancing WesBanco Arena so it’s a building of the future,” he said. “Go over to River City (Restaurant) on a hockey game (night). You can’t get in it.”
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