WEIRTON - After weeks of workshops and citizen budget review committee meetings, City Council reached a consensus last week on a budget plan to close a projected $1.6 million shortfall in the 2014-15 fiscal year. Part of that plan was shot down during council's regular meeting Monday night by a 4-3 vote in which one councilman abstained.
The proposal was presented by Ward 6 Councilman David Dalrymple and would have involved two primary actions by council.
The first part of the proposal called for a reduction in the police and fire service fee by about 20 percent, which would include a decrease in residential fees from $50 to $40; a decrease in commercial fees from 15 cents per square foot to 12 cents per square foot; and a decrease in the fee for churches and schools from 8 cents per square foot to 6 cents per square foot. The decreases would have resulted in an estimated $468,383 decrease in budget revenue.
ADDRESSES COUNCIL — Brenda Mull, president of the Weirton Area Chamber of Commerce, addressed City Council members Monday to express her opposition to the proposed B&O tax amendment, a sentiment shared by many in the local business community. “I think integrity is at stake tonight,” she said. “When you drive businesses out by passing this tax and they close their doors, you won’t be able to collect it.” --- Shae Dalrymple
The second part was to enact a Business and Occupation tax with most categories set at 25 percent of the maximum allowable rate. Current B&O rates would remain in place, while the production and utilities category would be set at 100 percent of the maximum allowable rate. The retail category would be set to 75 percent of the maximum allowable rate, which is 0.375 percent, with a $500,000 (or $125,000 per quarter) annual exemption. The service category would be set to 75 percent of the maximum rate, which is 0.75 percent, and the contractor category would be set at 100 percent of the maximum rate, which is 2 percent, with a $100,000 per project exemption. The proposed B&O changes would result in an estimated additional $2,378,108.29 in revenue.
Any excess funds generated by these changes, in addition to the $1.6 million needed for filling the budget gap, would be used for infrastructure and security. This scenario would result in an estimated total of $1,909,722 of new revenue.
Ward 5 Councilman George Gaughenbaugh abstained from voting on the B&O amendment ordinance, citing only a conversation with City Attorney Vince Gurrera as his reason. He had expressed support for Dalrymple's proposal at last Wednesday's workshop meeting.
In a roll call vote, Ward 2 Councilman Chuck Wright, Ward 4 Councilman George Ash Sr. and Dalrymple voted in favor of the B&O amendment. Ward 1 Councilman Ronnie Jones, Ward 3 Councilman Fred Marsh and Ward 7 Councilman Terry Weigel voted against it. Mayor George Kondik acted as the tie-breaker and voted against the B&O, which garnered applause from a larger-than-usual audience.
"Believe me, we've put in a lot of time and effort, and I appreciate everything that everyone has done with this and everybody who has given their input. However the vote on this goes, we still have a hole that we need to fill. We have departments in which, throughout the last eight years that I know of, staff has been cut or equipment has been denied because of cuts. We've been down that road. Now it's time to make some decisions and solve our problems. We may differ on how we're going to solve the problem, but we definitely have a problem, and it's a difficult decision for all of us," Weigel commented before the vote took place.
Remarks were made by eight local residents, including Brenda Mull, president of the Weirton Area Chamber of Commerce, and other business owners before the voting took place, and all but one of them voiced opposition to the B&O.
Several said that the B&O would force them to consider relocating to another state.
Despite the "no" vote on the B&O, council members voted 4-3 to pass the police and fire service fee reduction amendment, which will result in a wider budget gap than previously estimated unless further action is taken. Gaughenbaugh, Ash, Dalrymple and Wright voted in favor of the amendment, and Weigel, Jones and Marsh voted against it.
After the meeting, the mayor and members of City Council, with the exception of Dalrymple, declined to comment when asked about the passage of the police and fire service fee reduction.
"I'm greatly disappointed by tonight's outcome when it comes to properly funding the city's budget," Dalrymple said. "I'm satisfied that the citizens, churches, schools and businesses will realize a 20 percent reduction in their police and fire service fee in the coming year. I fear that the day-to-day business of the city will soon fall on the backs of hard-working residents due to the results of tonight's meeting. I hope that the business community that mobilized to manipulate tonight's vote will use the same energy to bring real solutions to the table that won't break the backs of workers and residents in the community who make up their customer base."
A resolution to enter into contract for the fireworks display for the city's Fourth of July celebration was initially tabled at Ash's suggestion because of the pending budget concerns. It was reconsidered at the end of the meeting.
"I want to know if we have the money to do it," Ash said.
"We absolutely do not have the money to do it since (council) just cut our police and fire service fee," said City Manager Valerie Means.
As a result, councilmen voted unanimously against funding the fireworks display.
In other business, Kondik proclaimed Sunday through May 24 to be Emergency Medical Services Week in honor of EMS responders of all kinds and presented the proclamation to Chief Bud Cole of the Weirton Area Ambulance and Rescue Service.
Kondik also presented Mayor's Awards to Madonna and Weir High Interact Club students who participated in the Soup, Socks and Smiles program.
"They came to the city and asked for support of this program. The city employees gave them assistance with cans, locations, deliveries and pick-ups," he explained.
Weirton was chosen as one of three cities out of 150,000 to win a Make A Difference Day Award, and the Interact group won $10,000 for its food drive efforts. Members donated the money to the Salvation Army and Community Bread Basket.
Maj. Sue Dewan of the Salvation Army thanked the students.
"It means so much to people living in poverty here in our community. Thank you," she said.
In old business, an ordinance amending the Unified Development Ordinance street design standards was passed unanimously along with an ordinance authorizing the city to submit the municipal home rule applications to the West Virginia Home Rule Board. An ordinance to adopt the recommendations of the city Planning Commission regarding the zoning map classification of a property on Greenbrier Road was tabled until next month at the request of Marsh, because he has been unable to contact the property owner.
In new business, councilmembers voted 6-1 to approve a resolution adopting the Community Development Block Grant B-14 Annual Action Plan. Marsh voted against the resolution.
"I thought about this for a while. Through the discussions we had about the budget I'm still worried about foot patrol for the police department asking for $20,000 and only giving them $12,000. He's going to have to rob Peter to pay Paul. I'm probably the only one who will vote no on this tonight, but that's my reason," Marsh said.
"If we give that to the police department then we will have to take it away from someone we've already promised it to," Ash noted.
Councilmen voted unanimously to rescind an ordinance that established a residential handicapped parking space on Wetzel Street and another ordinance amending the UDO concerning storm water management and surface water discharge control and applicable rates and fees. They also voted unanimously to pass a resolution to enter into contract for the purchase of bunker gear for the Weirton Fire Department.
"For the record, that purchase is coming from Brooke County levy money, not the general fund," Marsh said.
Dalrymple took the opportunity to remind everyone present that the Brooke County fire levy is up for renewal today at the polls.
"Get out and support that levy, because it does support the city's fire department along with other Brooke County entities. It's an important levy," he commented.
Five resolutions to place liens against properties for costs incurred in demolition of unsafe properties all passed unanimously. The properties are located on Elmer Avenue, Avenue D and Clara Street.
Two resolutions authorizing last-minute revisions of the 2013-14 fiscal year General Fund budget and coal severance fund budget were passed unanimously. The changes were made to account for personnel vacancies in the police and fire departments.
"We've got two vacancies at our fire department. Obviously they're going to be very difficult to fill, so our fire department is very short at this time," Chief Jerry Shumate reported.
Rik Rekowski, director of the Mary H. Weir Public Library, announced that a literary review hosted by the Women's Club will take place May 25, and tickets are available. There will also be a $2 drawing to win a Kindle Fire reading tablet for e-books.
(Dalrymple can be contacted at firstname.lastname@example.org)