City given input on budget woes

WEIRTON – Weirton City Council had its hands full at Monday’s regular meeting with input from the community regarding continuing budget woes and deficits in the police and fire pension funds.

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 at the regular May meeting.

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 Ward 6 Councilman David Dalrymple’s proposal which included a business and occupation tax.

“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,” Ward 4 Councilman George Ash added.

That stipulation was approved by a unanimous vote.

Ward 7 Councilman Terry Weigel motioned to amend the agenda and remove two items which 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 over 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 sheltered workshop or the newspaper delivery boys or the retirees that are working at McDonald’s just to supplement their pensions 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 1 Councilman 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 Councilman 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 5 percent cable franchise fee was tabled by another 4-3 vote, with Gaughenbaugh, Jones, Weigel and Marsh voting to table it.

Eleven citizens approached council with remarks, including Bishop Craig Greathouse, who spoke on behalf of the Family of God Christian Center.

Greathouse noted the church, located in the former Edgewood Primary School pays $3,000 for the city’s police and fire service fee.

“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.

Greathouse noted some of the church’s community activities over the years, including donating $3,000 to $4,000 each year to the Community Bread Basket, back-to-school events and distributing school supplies.

“I know it will hurt other churches in the community, too,” Greathouse said. “I just wanted to make you aware that it will hurt what we do in the community.”

Capt. Rick Stead of the Weirton Police Department addressed council on behalf of the members of Fraternal Order of Police Lodge 54 regarding Weirton’s police and fire pension funds.

Stead, who served on the citizen review committee to discuss the city’s budget issues, explained any pension deficits are in addition to the $1.6 million operational deficit currently faced by the city for the 2015-16 fiscal year.

“We’re here tonight because between police and fire pension funds, there is a $29.5 million deficit – $23.5 million for the police department and about $6 million from the fire department,” Stead explained. “I don’t want to see us get in a situation where we have to levy citizens to pay for our retirement funds when there are other avenues available.”

Stead encouraged council to make additional contributions to the pension funds to keep them solvent, saying if a levy were to be enacted it could cost $3,400 per household.

Bill Beatty reiterated some of Stead’s points and brought council’s attention to communications he’s had with Blair Taylor, executive director of the Municipal Pension Oversight Board of Charleston.

“He is willing to come here and meet with all of you and any retired or acting police officers. We need something to happen. We have a little bit of money in the stock market, but it’s coming out faster with draw downs to make up the money to pay the pensions than what’s going in. If the stock market drops, it’s on all of you. It’s on everybody. According to Taylor, it’s a law in the state that the pensions are viable – they have to be paid,” Beatty said.

Rich Sherensky also spoke about the pension deficits, adding he was upset with council for voting down the B&O proposal, feeling it leaves the budget problem solely on the backs of residents.

Retired police officer Jon Phillips pointed out the importance of police officers being able to retire at an appropriate age and suggested a cost of living raise.

“When you’re hired as a police officer you’re hired at a young age, and we don’t want police officers running around here 60 to 65 years old. We want them to retire in their 50s, and at that time they can collect their pensions. People live now into their 80s, and without a cost of living raise, they’re going to go 30 years without a raise,” Phillips said. “Police officers don’t pay into social security. Social security might get a raise, but we don’t get social security. If we do get it if we work a menial job, we would only get 40 percent of what we’re entitled to. I just want to represent those people and some of the widows out there who are making $1,200 a month or less, maybe for the rest of their lives. I think it would help if we could get this solvent.”

Linda Stankiewicz, Weirton’s first female police officer, felt that 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, Weirton Medical Center director of operations, spoke on behalf of the hospital.

“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, noting the hospital will spearhead the funding of the city’s July 4 fireworks display beginning this year

Later during the meeting, council voted unanimously to enter into contract for the fireworks. City Manager Valerie Means said that she received a letter of commitment from WMC representatives regarding the event’s funding.

Randy Olenick approached council in solidarity with the rest of the FOP members present.

“All I’m asking is for all of you to please do the best you can. Set up the meeting Mr. Beatty was talking about to try to come to a long-term solution,” Olenick said.

Resident Jody Trupiano noted the number of older residents in Weirton.

“This is a community of mostly retired people,” Trupiano said. “I work in a doctor’s office, and believe me, there are many people who are very ill from no fault of their own. They need patient assistance for their medications. Where are they going to find the money for more fees and bills? You guys need to come together and should have probably done it sooner than later to find some other way than to keep milking your citizens.”

Tim McCure also asked council members to reconsider the fee increases on the agenda and look at a B & O tax again.

“The state legislators have your hands tied. There are only three states in the union that have a B and O tax, and we happen to be one of them. It’s not a good tax, but it’s the tool that you have to generate income. We heard from the business community that were against the B and O, but I don’t see them here offering solutions,” McCure said. “This is an historic time I think. You have the opportunity to lay out the groundwork for future generations. We need courage. We need a paradigm shift to reinvent our city and make it a better place to live and do business with responsible government.”

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 that 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 back in May.

“Ward 5 Councilman George Gaughenbaugh abstained, and the mayor broke the tie. Just remember that,” Ash commented.