STEUBENVILLE - Last-minute, behind-the-scenes discussions saved the Pleasant Heights fire station for this year, but five city firefighters still face layoffs next week after City Council approved the 2013 budget Tuesday night that includes a $20,000 year-end surplus.
Third Ward Councilman Greg Metcalf and fire Chief Carlo Capaldi were in private talks the past several days regarding the Pleasant Heights fire station that was set to be closed in order to save money.
"We can run all three stations with our 10-man manning levels. We have five firefighters at the downtown station, two firefighters at the Pleasant Heights fire station and three firefighters at the West End fire station. With these layoffs we will be down to 31 firefighters, including myself. And that covers the manning level. Yes, this is a Band-Aid approach. Something needs to be done for next year and moving forward," explained Capaldi during a finance committee meeting prior to the regular meeting.
"I am looking at the safety factor on the hilltops, and I want to stay within the budget. I would also like to avoid moving the security cameras at the fire station that are used by the police," noted Metcalf.
"Because the expenses are so minimal to keep the building open, I would rather transfer money from the safety fund to keep the fire station open. We are projecting a year-end surplus of $25,000, so keeping the station open will mean a $20,000 surplus. I applaud the council members for working through this issue," said City Manager Cathy Davison.
"I have no problem keeping it open. It definitely needs to stay open," said 2nd Ward Councilman Rick Perkins.
Fifth Ward Councilman Willie Paul agreed, citing "the older homes and abandoned houses on some streets. I don't want to let the hilltop residents down."
Chris Blackburn, president of the International Association of Firefighters Local 228, later thanked council for keeping the Pleasant Heights fire station open.
"We plan on working diligently to bring the five firefighters back. For the past five years we have given the city substantial concessions. I appreciate keeping the fire house open, but I don't like laying off five firefighters," commented Blackburn.
Council members rejected a suggestion to transfer money from the safety fund in order to open the Belleview Pool this summer but learned a fundraising campaign for pool operating expenses is in the works.
"Everybody talks about quality of life in a community. I'm having a hard time letting the quality of life slip away," said 6th Ward Councilman David Lalich who had raised the idea of using safety fund money to open the pool.
"I am not a pool guy but I am concerned about that pool if we don't open it for two or three years," he noted.
"I think you can't use safety fund money for this and you shouldn't. You would be taking a chance of having the auditors come back and look at the fund. And the safety forces will probably ask why you aren't dipping into the safety fund for their departments," advised Law Director S. Gary Repella.
And Davison said opening the pool and hiring seasonal employees would violate the American Federation of State, County and Municipal Employees union contract.
Councilman at large Kenny Davis said he recently met with a major oil and gas company, "who talked about funding what we can do to make money. We can organize a fundraiser and the company will fund it. I would like to do something at the amphitheater with several bands to raise money to operate the pool. I say don't give up. We can work for 2014 and there is still an outside chance for this year."
During the hour-long regular meeting, council approved its 2013 budget but heard a warning from Lalich who said the city will be facing a $900,000 deficit in 2014.
"Everything must be looked at. We have to become really aggressive in saving money," stated Lalich.
"You can only cut so much. We need to quit talking about a central fire station and start working on it. We have cut all we can. We have to figure out a way to get our income tax up. We need to get the oil and gas guys living in the city," said Davis.
Council agreed to meet in executive session at 5:30 p.m. on April 9 to discuss the police contract negotiations, which start in April, and the firefighters' contract talks are set to begin in December.
Council members, in a 5-2 vote, approved a resolution Tuesday night to create a charter review commission that will see nine people appointed by Mayor Domenick Mucci study the city charter and possibly recommend changes.
Metcalf and 4th Ward Councilwoman Angela Suggs opposed the resolution citing the time was not right for a charter review.
In other action during the regular meeting, council approved an ordinance authorizing the city manager to sign a contract with MWH Constructors for the design of a super pulsator building at the water filtration plant.
Council also approved legislation to advertise for proposals for a new delinquent water account collection service.
"What an embarrassment to see all of the unpaid water bills while good customers pay their bills every month. We currently have about $160,000 in delinquent bills. I want to see a more aggressive approach to collect these delinquent accounts. This ordinance will be the first step," said Metcalf.
"I prefer using a collection law firm so we can garnish wages for delinquent accounts," Davison said.
But, according to Repella, "close to 50 percent of the delinquent customers are on welfare or people who don't work. We may never be able to collect some of these accounts. We also can't fight a federal court order that requires the city to give a delinquent water customer due process before we shut their water off."
Council approved amending a proposed new employee table of organization to reject a 77-cents-an-hour pay raise for a clerk in the municipal court.
"With all of the things we are going through it would be irresponsible to pass this ordinance with that included. If the judge has a problem with it he can give us a court order," remarked Davis.
Paul voted against the new table of organization and said, "I am not in favor of laying firefighters off."
Council also approved a resolution declaring April as Fair Housing Month in the city and approved the adoption of the indirect cost allocation plan for the city and authorization to pay expenditures more than $3,000 without a purchase order.
Council also heard from city resident Royal Mayo who stated, "I don't think Ma'Lik Richmond received a fair trial. He was convicted in the court of public opinion before the trial. Their has been talk about healing but that healing can't begin until this wrong is righted."
Richmond and Trent Mays were found delinquent in Jefferson County Juvenile Court on charges of raping a 16-year-old Weirton girl last summer.
And, city resident Jeffrey Hawkins asked for the city manager to inspect the alley behind the 1500 block of Ridge Avenue.
"It is disgusting to look at the illegal dumping in the alley. It is pathetic. I am really fed up with this. I do my best to pick up litter in my neighborhood but it is a losing battle. I take pride in my neighborhood," stated Hawkins.