WEIRTON - City Council had its hands full at Monday's regular meeting with a significant amount of input from the community regarding budget woes and deficits in the police and fire pension funds, as well as the resignation of one councilman.
Eleven citizens approached council with remarks, including the Rev. Craig Greathouse, who spoke on behalf of the Family of God Christian Center.
"We purchased the Edgewood Primary School seven years ago. We were a little shocked when we moved in and in the first month got a bill for $3,000 for the police and fire service fee, but we worked it out. In lieu of the ordinances that are being brought forth tonight, any additional fees to our church are going to hurt us financially and going to hurt us in a number of things that we do for the community," Greathouse said.
DISCUSSIONS?CONTINUE — At City Council’s regular meeting Monday, Weirton resident Bill Beatty suggested city officials meet with Blair Taylor, executive director of the Municipal Pension Oversight Board of Charleston. Issues with Weirton’s pension plan were brought up Monday, along with continuing budget discussions. --- Shae Dalrymple
Capt. Rick Stead of the Weirton Police Department, representing members of Fraternal Order of Police Lodge 54, said there are serious questions about the city's police and fire pension funds.
"We have some serious concerns about our pension funds, which we feel have a direct correlation with the budget talks and the direction we are traveling right now. I had the pleasure of being on the citizens' budget review committee, and the first thing we said was that we did not want to put a Band-Aid on operations. We didn't want to have to come back year after year and cover the same ground again. That $1.6 million is just what we need to operate - without anything else, without anything added, without providing extra things to the community," Stead said.
Stead said there was a $23.5 million deficit in the police department pension fund and a $6 million deficit in the firefighters' fund.
"Huntington is paying about 18 percent of its general fund budget to keep police and fire pension funds going. At the rate we pay right now, we pay about 3.5 percent of our current general fund budget, which is a little bit more than the minimum required by the state. But unless we start putting more money into the pension fund, we're going to have a situation where the city might need to place a levy on citizens. Right now that would be about $3,400 per household. This is a problem that isn't going away; it has to be addressed. Next year the city must begin reporting it as an underfunded liability on their balance sheet."
"It concerns me because we've seen cities like Detroit go bankrupt because of pension funds," Ward 4 Councilman George Ash Sr. noted.
Linda Stankiewicz, Weirton's first female police officer, said she deserves the pension she worked for.
"I worked for the city of Weirton for 23 years. I want to keep my pension. I think the city owes me my pension, and I go along with what the other members of the FOP said. I love living in the city of Weirton, but I feel bad that my city has gone downhill and looks so bad," she commented.
David Artman spoke on behalf of Weirton Medical Center.
"WMC realizes that there is a significant budget shortfall and that difficult decisions have to be made. We've calculated the impact on the hospital of an increase in the police and fire service fee, and we feel that it is reasonable. We support the city," he said. "Along with the business community we would like to spearhead the funding of the city's Fourth of July fireworks celebration, and we'd like to continue to do that not only this year, but next year and the year following."
Later during the meeting, council voted unanimously to enter into contract for the fireworks. City Manager Valerie Means said she received a letter of commitment from WMC representatives regarding the event's funding.
Eric Patterson, FOP president, attended to support his fellow officers including those who couldn't attend the meeting.
"You've heard from a handful of our retirees, but what you haven't heard or seen is that we have just over 30 retirees. All of them have done their service to the city, and all of them expected a pension in return. What you also didn't see is the 30-plus current employees we have here that are also working for a wage and expecting a pension at their time of retirement," Patterson said. "We ask you to please come up with a solution to save us. We're workers here, but we're also citizens. We don't want to have to pay these extra fees."
Patterson added police and fire service fees do not go straight to the police and fire departments in total.
Ash reminded everyone present that he, along with Ward 6 Councilman David Dalrymple and Ward 2 Councilman Chuck Wright, voted in favor of the B and O tax in May when it was part of a proposal presented by Dalrymple.
"Ward 5 Councilman George Gaughenbaugh abstained, and the mayor broke the tie. Just remember that," Ash commented.
In the realm of budget-related legislation, council members voted unanimously to reverse the 20 percent decrease in police and fire service fees that was passed during the May meeting.
"Due to the issues in the budget and the fact that we're not really going to solve anything when it comes to meeting our shortfall, no matter what we do I don't want to jeopardize the city police department and fire department and the citizens by lowering the police and fire service fee right now. It would have a detrimental effect on our budget," Dalrymple said. "I do this with a heavy heart, because it was part of a plan that would have answered a lot of questions and helped the city out."
If the decision had not been reversed, the reduction would have resulted in an estimated $468,383 decrease in budget revenue, which would have further widened the budget gap. It was initially intended to be a part of Dalrymple's proposal, which included the B and O tax. The other half of his plan was voted down last month, and the police and fire service fee decrease was not feasible without the company of other actions involved in the proposal.
"I want to reserve the right to bring this back if council gets the intestinal fortitude to put a B and O tax in, I want to be able to put this in later," Ash added. That stipulation was approved by a unanimous vote.
Ward 7 Councilman Terry Weigel motioned to amend the agenda and remove two items that went along with one of two of his most recent proposals: An amendment of the Weirton municipal service fee and an amendment of the police and fire service fee. These actions were part of a proposal based on adjusting rates according to inflation, and council voted unanimously to strike them from the agenda.
"We've got multiple options out there. I don't believe we should waste anybody's time with that. I want to be very clear on what I'm proposing at this time and not just throw them all out there," Weigel said.
Three items were tabled related to Weigel's second proposal, which would:
Increase all categories of the police and fire service fee by 50 percent. Residential would increase from $50 to $75. Commercial would increase from 15 cents per square foot to 23 cents per square foot, and churches and school would increase from 8 cents per square foot to 12 cents per square foot. Structures more than 500,000 square feet would be invoiced at the new rate (23 cents per square foot) for the first 500,000 square feet and at the current rate (15 cents per square foot) for all square footage over 500,000 square feet. This would generate an estimated $629,775 of additional revenue.
Increase the municipal service fee from $2 per week to $2.50 per week. This would generate an estimated $210,000 of additional revenue.
Establish a cable franchise fee with Comcast at the maximum level of 5 percent. This would generate an estimated $428,863 of additional revenue.
This scenario would generate an estimated total of $1,268,638, which would still be $331,362 short of closing the projected $1.6 million gap in the 2015 fiscal budget.
"I just don't understand how this council can even consider doing this. I know to you it's only 50 cents a week, but the clients that work up at the shelter workshop or the newspaper delivery boys or the retirees that are working at McDonald's just to supplement their pensions, (they) can't afford to have another 50 cents taken away from them. When there's so many people hurting around this town right now, you see it every day, and still you're willing to do that. I have to motion that we table this right now," Ash said.
An ordinance to amend the municipal fee was tabled by a 4-3 vote, with Ash, Ward I Council Ronnie Jones, Ward 2 Councilman Chuck Wright and Dalrymple voting to table it.
An ordinance to amend the police and fire service fee was tabled by a 5-2 vote, with Ward 5 Council George Gaughenbaugh, Weigel, Wright, Ward 3 Councilman Fred Marsh and Jones voting to table it.
And, a resolution authorizing the city manager to begin the process of enacting a five percent cable franchise fee was tabled by another 4-3 vote, with Gaughenbaugh, Jones, Weigel and Marsh voting to table it.
After meeting in executive session, it was announced that Jones was resigning from council. He has moved from his ward, which makes his ineligible to continue on council.