Weirton discusses spending needs
WEIRTON – Weirton City Council spent two hours Monday discussing spending needs and figuring what to do with a slim cash carryover from the fiscal year 2012-13 budget.
The city finished the year with a total surplus of nearly $151,000, which includes about $36,000 in spending adjustments.
At Monday’s special meeting, however, council discussed spending needs totaling more than three times that amount, before opting to put the money into the contingency fund for the time being pending final disposition.
Dominating the discussion:
The new contract negotiated with City Police, which council has yet to vote on, would cost the city about $132,000 more per year, while the proposed contract for members of the Weirton Municipal Employees Union would cost the city another $60,000 annually.
Designating a training officer for the fire department, promoting another lieutenant and adding a firefighter to the city department would cost a little more than $14,000 more than what the city already has budgeted, bringing the total cost to roughly $64,000.
Health care coverage is the white elephant in the mix, since it will be at least a month before City Manager Valerie Means said she can come back to council with a quote.
Means told council health care “is a big piece of the budget.” The city budgeted $1.5 million in fiscal year 2013-14, but that’s just a best-guess scenario. They won’t know actual numbers until the proposals come in from insurers. She said that September is considered early in that respect, and generally speaking, the earlier they request quotes the higher the price tag is likely to be since insurers have to project full-year costs rather than base them on actual experience.
Energy-saving measures suggested by a recent Honeywell energy audit would cost around $110,000 to implement in full, though some aspects of the plan, if implemented, would pay for themselves in savings. Discussions with Honeywell about an indemnification clause and guarantee haven’t been fruitful, however. Council put a decision on hold pending further discussion.
And looming over all of the budget issues is this year’s $117,000 general fund bailout for the sanitation department, which has been operating in the red for several years.
Finance Director Tom Maher said the red ink, if shared by the department’s roughly 8,000 customers, “comes out to about $1.22 a month,” but that doesn’t allow for equipment replacement.
The city currently has lease-purchase agreements for the trucks, which Maher said generally ends up costing the city $7,000-$9,000 a year in interest per truck. Purchasing new vehicles outright would save taxpayers a significant amount, he said.
“Those are some big numbers up there,” Ward 6 Councilman Dave Dalrymple said. “I would think that before we do anything … we should look at privatizing.”
Ward 7 Councilman Terry Weigel said privatizing had been considered previously, but vendors they talked to “kind of backed off.” Now that the city has a cost-of-service breakdown, he said they might be able to proceed with those discussions to determine if it is, in fact, a viable option.
“In the meantime, we’re still spending $117,000 out of the general fund,” Ward 4 Councilman George Ash said. “I can’t remember the last time we had a rate hike … I hate to see us keep spending $117,000 from the general fund that we could use for other things.”
Ash told council he was ready to act.
“I realize we can’t vote” at the special meeting, he said. “But I am willing to support a rate hike.”
Weigel agreed the sanitation department shouldn’t be subsidized out of the city’s general fund and said they need to look at its operations annually and adjust rates upward – or downward – as warranted.
“This is the most detailed information about sanitation I’ve seen in 10 or 11 years on council,” Dalrymple said. “It’s an eye-opener. But, until we hear from the finance director what the offer is from the private firm, I’m not voting for anything.
“We need to see what the options are,” he added.
“I think this is the third time we’ve talked about privatizing since I’ve been on council,” Ash said. “Both times I think it was going to be more. And I’d be hard-pressed to vote for privatizing if our employees” weren’t assured of jobs.
Public Works Director John Brown said the four full-time sanitation drivers could be reassigned. “We could use them,” he said. “It wouldn’t be a big issue.”
Weigel pointed out there are advantages to maintaining service in-house. When houses are missed, workers will collect the refuse without question. And in the case of the elderly or infirm, he said workers will go up to their porches to assist them.
“The truth of the matter is, I’d like to leave it alone and let the guys do the good work they’re doing now,” Dalrymple said. “But if we’re looking at cutting back, at saving money, then we need to look at all (possibilities).”
Means told council the committee had spent months at the bargaining table negotiating three-year deals with the police and WMEU. She told council she’d like to be ready to implement the new agreements on Oct. 1, but the startup could be delayed if necessary.
Means said police “came to the plate, they gave up a lot” to beef up wages, agreeing to changes in longevity and vacation. And WMEU “gave up what they could give up,” she added.
But with raises representing a nearly $200,000 per-year hit on the budget, council members initially balked at instructing Means to proceed without knowing how much more they will have to pay for health coverage, particularly with the new health care law taking effect.
“I’d rather take some time, get information on other things and how they’re going to impact us and look at the overall impact,” Weigel said, adding they need to have “a clear understanding of the total impact.”
Dalrymple agreed, saying they don’t know enough to make a decision now.
“We don’t have all the information we need,” he said. “I’m not making a commitment without all the information. I’m for raises, but if the insurance comes back astronomical, that changes everything.”
But Means reiterated hospitalization costs won’t be available “until the third week of September or so.” She said council could, if it chooses, go into recess and resume the budget session once all the numbers are in.
“We don’t have that much time,” Chief Bruce Marshall said. “We’re losing good people, and we can’t get new ones.”
Marshall pointed out the city already has made a significant investment in training costs for each officer on staff. When officers leave the force, the city loses that investment.
And with other departments in the area also hiring, competition is keen.
“We can’t even give a test, we can’t bring anybody in here,” he said. “So you don’t have much time.”
Marshall also pointed out his department “doesn’t have 100 percent agreement on the contract,” and delays might fray that.
Dalrymple told council, “If we have to put ourselves out there to protect what we have, grow what we have, then do it.”
Both contracts will be added to the September council agenda.
“We need to keep who we have, the good people we’ve trained,” Marshall said after the meeting. “We need to give the (civil service) test. We have four officers right now who could retire, but we’ve got to be able to show a competitive wage to bring people in to take the test and make them want to stay.”
Fire training officer
Designating a fire training officer was a key point in a $26,000 study commissioned by the city. The proposal, as mapped out for council, would involve designating one individual to serve as training officer, paying him more money in lieu of overtime he would otherwise receive, promoting another officer to lieutenant and hiring a new firefighter.
Ash made it clear he doesn’t think they need to expand the firefighter staff to fill the need, saying they should be able to accomplish the same thing by merely changing the job description of a firefighter who has the appropriate credentials and then supplementing his salary.
“If we have a union person trained to do it, just change their job description – add on fire trainer, and give them a little more money to do that and that’s it,” he said. “Whatever rank he is, he is. Just make him a training officer.”
But Chief Jerry Shumate said it wouldn’t work.
“I’ve got four shifts of people under state Civil Service Code,” he said. “If you keep (him) on shift, three other shifts don’t get the training. Remember, we’re already staffed below what the study told you we should be.”
Wright said they needed to seriously consider funding the position since they’d already spent $26,000 on the study that said it was needed.
“Are we going to finance everything that study said?” Ash said. “How are we going to pay for it?”
Dalrymple, meanwhile, made it clear he has no intention of earmarking more money for the training position.
“You have your vote, my vote is no,” he told council, pointing out he’d served on the committee. “We opted to try and get someone in the private sector but that obviously didn’t work.”
(Harris can be contacted at email@example.com)