Police force cuts trigger opposition

WHEELING – City Manager Robert Herron predicts Wheeling will be operating at a $250,000 deficit by this time next year if it doesn’t act to cut costs, but some City Council members are not on board with his plan to do so by reducing the size of the city’s police force.

Discussion of the proposed budget changes will continue during a meeting of council’s Finance Committee set for noon today at the City-County Building.

The plan includes cutting about 20 positions from the budget, including reducing the number of police officer positions by 11, from 83 to 72. Other departments would see more modest cuts, including three positions from the Water Pollution Control Division, two from the Operations Department, two from sanitation and one from the fire department.

“This is not a time to mess with safety forces, with the oil and gas and all the drug problems that we’re having. … If anybody thinks we don’t have them, they’d better get their heads out of the sand,” said Councilwoman Gloria Delbrugge.

“The whole idea of going down to a one-man cruiser was to have more coverage, and now we’re talking about reducing the size of the police force,” she added, referring to past controversy over an ordinance overturned by voters in 2012 that required two officers in each patrol car.

Councilmen Ken Imer and Robert “Herk” Henry, a retired Wheeling police officer, also believe the city needs to look elsewhere to reduce spending.

“I’m not for cutting any safety forces at all,” Henry said.

Councilman Don Atkinson said he needs more information to decide whether he supports the proposed cuts, but he wants to be sure the city has thoroughly examined all options for reducing spending and raising needed revenue before it reduces the size of its police department.

“Population went down, and the city’s the same size,” Atkinson said. “But you’ve got to be able to pay for it.”

Some elements of Herron’s proposal, such as reducing the number of police officers with higher ranks over time, will require council approval. But city code does not require a specific number of entry-level officers, leaving that matter to the city manager’s discretion.

Herron didn’t rule out making changes to the cost-cutting plan after today’s Finance Committee discussion, but he remains firm that changes must be made.

“It’s a proposal for discussion … but at the end of the day, we have to have a balanced budget,” Herron said. “And it’s not going to get any easier.”

The officials’ comments came following a brief City Council meeting Tuesday that lasted just 10 minutes and saw members approve the following items, all by a 6-0 vote with Councilman David Miller absent: making a $154,780 payment on the city’s 2005 Section 108 loan from the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development; approving an agreement with the Ohio County Board of Education for use of Garden Park in Warwood; establishing handicapped parking spaces in front of 4720 Eoff St. and 611 N. Erie St., as well as a no-parking zone on the east side of Beverly Drive; and paying invoices related to ongoing construction of a new water treatment plant in Warwood.

Also during the meeting, Herron addressed the recent discovery of a broken window on the building that houses restrooms at the new J.B. Chambers Recreation Park in East Wheeling. He said the damage is believed to be accidental, the result of a stray basketball.

“We do not believe it was an act of vandalism,” Herron said.

Council’s next meeting will be at noon Aug. 5.