Weirton gives nod to expanding tax

WEIRTON – City Council voted 3-2, with one abstention, to approve the second and final reading of an ordinance to expand the city’s business and occupation tax during a special session Tuesday.

Councilmen David Dalrymple, George Ash Sr. and Chuck Wright voted in favor, while Councilmen Fred Marsh and Terry Weigel voted against. Ward 5 Councilman George Gaughenbaugh abstained, citing “conflict of interest.” He would not elaborate.

The tax is being expanded to help make up for a projected $1.6 million shortfall in the municipal budget in the 2015-2016 fiscal year. The 2014-2015 fiscal year began Tuesday.

Citizen comments were allowed at the meeting after Ward 3 Councilman Fred Marsh motioned to amend the agenda and council voted in favor of it.

Dr. George Roig, chief of anesthesia at Weirton Medical Center, brought City Council’s attention to CNBC’s ranking of the “Five worst states for business in the U.S.,” in which West Virginia placed third, finishing last for business friendliness. The commentary was published June 24.

“I think a B and O tax is probably the worst thing we can do … I think the business community has a better idea on how to generate the revenue that is needed for the work that needs to be done here,” Roig commented. “I have not heard one person say they’re sorry to those individuals who could potentially lose their jobs. I would ask that you do that today if you give it a ‘yes’ vote.”

Resident Tim McCune offered his support to City Council, noting that they were in “a tough position.”

“This is how our system works. We have to steady our financial ship, and the decision falls to you,” he said. “You’ve had committees. You’ve analyzed the data, and you’ve come to a conclusion.”

McCune added that home rule status and a sales tax most likely lie ahead for the city, and another committee should be convened to determine “what the citizens of Weirton want.”

Resident George Rommage specifically addressed City Manager Valerie Means.

“What have you done? How many businesses have you been able to attract to this city? You’ve got to ask yourself, are you doing your job that you were hired to do?” Rommage said. He also asked council to pray about the situation.

Doug Jackson, president of Anesthesia Associates and a Marland Heights property owner, said that the B and O tax will cause the city to no longer “feel like home” to him.

“I employ a lot of people at a very high tax bracket … I am now faced with the fact that I have to either lay people off or relocate my businesses elsewhere,” Jackson said. “I would ask you all what other options have we seen? I would like for those of us that own businesses to have a greater say. I would like to know how many of you on City Council own your own business.”

On Tuesday morning Ohio County Circuit Court Judge David J. Sims dismissed a request for an injunction against the city that had been sought by three area businesses hoping to prevent the vote from occurring.

Tri-State Medical, Ocean-Air International Inc. and Startrans International Inc. alleged in their request that the city violated the state’s open meetings laws and Robert’s Rules of Order in the process of implementing the B and O tax, and also cited the current vacancy of a Ward 1 representative after the June 10 resignation of Ronnie Jones.

In his order, Sims stated the “Court is without authority to grant the relief requested by plaintiffs as no ordinance has yet been enacted into law. Therefore, this matter is not ripe for consideration. The court further finds that it is without proper statutory or constitutional authority to lawfully intervene in the ongoing legislative process of the plaintiff.”

In an interview Tuesday morning, J.J. Bernabei, owner of Tri-State Medical, said his fight against the B and O tax would not be ended by this vote.

“It was dismissed without prejudice, which means we can bring the injunction back if the ordinance passes. That’s exactly what we’re going to do,” he said.

Among those who have been the most outspoken about the tax were members of the Weirton Area Chamber of Commence. Brenda Mull, chamber president, had no comment after Tuesday’s vote.

The B and O tax will go into effect in 30 days, and rates will be set in accordance with a budget scenario proposed by Ward 6 Councilman Dalrymple.

Most categories will be set to 25 percent of their maximum allowable rate. Current B and O categories would remain the same, with production and utility categories set to 100 percent of the maximum allowable rate. Retail would be set to 75 percent of the maximum allowable rate, which is 0.375 percent, with a $500,000 annual exemption ($125,000 per quarter). Service would be set to 65 percent of the maximum allowable rate, which is 0.65 percent, with a $100,000 annual exemption ($25,000 per quarter). Contractors would be set to 100 percent of the maximum allowable rate, which is 2 percent, with a $100,000 per project exemption.

The proposed scenario would also reduce the police and fire service fee by approximately 20 percent. Residential fees would decrease from $50 to $40. Commercial fees would decrease from 15 cents per square foot to 12 cents per square foot and churches and schools would see their rate decrease from 8 cents per square foot to 6 cents per square foot.

Regarding the reduction of the police and fire service fee, Dalrymple explained his logic during the June 13 meeting.

“We want to show the residents and business community that we are willing to reduce a long-standing fee. It’s something we would do in order to soften the blow to businesses with larger square footage in the city at this time. It also would be a way to grant some of the larger square foot facilities like schools and churches a little bit of a reprieve from the fees they have been paying for over a decade,” he said.

The plan includes a stipulation that any excess funds superseding the projected $1.6 million budget gap “shall be targeted toward security.”

Dalrymple’s proposal would generate an estimated $1.7 million in additional revenue.

“The businesses that are here now will adapt. I’m more worried about the future of business in this town now that this is hanging over us,” Marsh commented.

“There’s a lot of things that I’d love to say tonight. I’d like to clarify a lot of misconceptions going around the community, but I have been advised not to due to pending litigation. So I’m gagged when it comes to defending myself publicly,” Dalrymple said.

Mayor George Kondik summed up his position before the vote.

“The most important thing now is ‘how do we get out of this and how do we repeal the B and O?’ On Aug. 11, we have a home rule committee meeting, and we are working on an amendment to adopt the sales tax for that home rule application. Unfortunately, we will not be able to adopt that until the first part of next year. Hopefully that will generate enough to repeal the B and O tax,” Kondik stated.