User fee vote is Tuesday

Passage means $2 weekly cost for all who live, work in Wheeling

WHEELING — After several months of discussion on the subject, Wheeling City Council is set to hold a vote on enacting a user fee Tuesday.

Council will vote on an ordinance to enact the $2 fee, dubbed a city service fee, at its meeting Tuesday, according to the meeting agenda. The fee would function as a weekly tax on all people who work in the city limits.

The user fee would help fund a proposed $14.5 million public safety building in Wheeling, providing space for the city’s police and fire departments, as well as infrastructure upgrades, officials said previously.

According to the ordinance up for a vote Tuesday, the user fee would apply to all full-time, part-time and self-employed workers who work in the city for at least 30 days per year.

Last November, a property tax levy in Wheeling, which was to fund a proposed public safety building, garnered 54 percent of the vote, failing to meet the 60 percent required to pass in West Virginia. Subsequently, city officials considered other funding sources, citing the majority of people who supported the building, and eventually decided on a user fee.

At its previous meeting Aug. 6, city council heard first reading of the ordinance. The following day, Ohio Valley Medical Center in Wheeling announced it would close within two to three months, resulting in an expected loss of about 900 jobs.

Despite the potential loss, several members of council said they still plan to move forward with the vote, citing the needs of first responders in the city.

Last week, Mayor Glenn Elliott said the user fee is strongly needed and that the OVMC closure is not indicative of Wheeling’s overall economy.

“The potential job losses are very concerning,” said Vice Mayor and Councilman Chad Thalman. “Mayor Elliott, city council and city staff have been working with state and federal officials to explore every option to preserve as many of those jobs as possible.”

“The city can walk and chew gum at the same time,” he continued. “There’s no reason the city can’t work to save jobs at OVMC while also improving the work conditions for first responders. I don’t agree with the implication that changes in the local health care market therefore means Wheeling police and firefighters shouldn’t have a functional and modern workspace.”

Councilwoman Wendy Scatterday, however, said more work needs to be done by the city to evaluate all funding sources for the public safety building before moving forward with a user fee. She said she doesn’t currently support enacting a user fee.

“The city needs to do more work to find supplemental funding before putting forth the proposed user fee, such as (to) seek grant funding and philanthropic and foundation donors to support the project. — none of which has been done yet,” Scatterday said.

Scatterday said she believes the city should go line by line through its budget to re-evaluate priorities and potentially find hundreds of thousands of dollars to go toward the public safety building.

“The essence of a user fee I don’t necessarily have an issue with,” she said. “It’s that we aren’t doing anything to compliment the ask. And that’s my approach with anything, to have a holistic approach.”

Councilman Dave Palmer agreed with Thalman that the city should move forward with the vote, though OVMC shutting its doors is concerning.

“The needs of our police officers and firefighters have been set aside for years and we are losing valued employees,” Palmer said. “We have been asking our safety forces to work in hazardous conditions for far too long, and I’m referring to police headquarters and fire stations.”

“The role of city council is to provide the best possible service to our citizens and by completing our due diligence I believe moving forward with a vote is the proper course of action,” Palmer continued.

Palmer also noted that the initial asking price of the property for the public safety building, proposed to be built at the corner of 19th and Jacob Street, is not final.

“While the city is interested in the property at 19th street as a possible location for the Public Safety Building, City Council never agreed to pay the asking price of $534,000,” he said. “The city continues to investigate the feasibility of this property and others for the location of a Public Safety Building.”

Councilman Ken Imer said he is “still undecided” regarding the user fee. Other members, Councilwoman Melinda Koslik and Councilman Ty Thorngate, did not return calls seeking comment.

Those who work multiple jobs in the city would only pay the fee once. Workers with two jobs could fill out a form to designate their primary job and submit it to the city so that the fee only applies to that job, officials said previously.

Employers would be required to hold the $2 per week from employees’ pay, and the fee would then be remitted quarterly to Wheeling’s Finance Department. Self-employed people would be responsible for remitting the fee on their own.

Several large West Virginia cities already have user fees in place that range from $2 to $5, including Weirton, Charleston, Huntington, Morgantown, Parkersburg and Fairmont. Such fees also apply to people who live in a different state from the city they work in.