By STEPHEN HUBA
Special to the Herald-Star
NEW CUMBERLAND - The three-way mayor's race pits an incumbent mayor against a longtime city employee with political aspirations and a political newcomer with an interest in Hancock County history.
In the absence of any scheduled debates, incumbent Mayor Richard "Dick" Blackwell, 71, city water operator Patrick "Pat" Jones, 59, and Hancock County Historical Museum Commission President Linda McNeil, 71, all say they've been running their campaigns the old-fashioned way going door to door and talking to residents about the issues.
On May 14, voters will decide the mayor's race and three City Council races.
The mayoral candidates say they want to, among other things, increase the city's clout with state government in Charleston, improve city streets, sidewalks and services, expand the city's business sector, improve morale among city employees and build pride in the community.
"There are ways to bring back community pride," said McNeil, a retired registered nurse who is running for mayor for the first time. "I would like to explore ways to do that with both longtime residents and newer residents."
One way to restore pride, she said, is to develop "working relationships with organizations that are being attentive to economic development in Hancock County" - organizations such as the Brooke-Hancock-Jefferson Metropolitan Planning Commission, the Brooke-Hancock Regional Planning and Development Council and the Business Development Corp. of the Northern Panhandle.
McNeil said she also, as mayor, would work to foster business growth in the city. "My goal is to make things better. I see a lack of focus, when I attend City Council meetings, on the good of the town," she said.
In addition to attending meetings, McNeil said she has been studying city ordinances, reviewing the West Virginia Code sections on municipalities and learning about the city budget and "the discipline needed to serve the residents and businesses within the budget limits."
Like the other mayoral candidates, McNeil said she is concerned with the loss of revenue to the city from a drop-off in limited video lottery money and table gaming activity in West Virginia. "It's tough times for everybody right now. We have to be very smart about where we put our money," she said.
A native of New Cumberland, McNeil graduated from New Cumberland High School and studied nursing at Mercy Hospital School of Nursing in Pittsburgh. Much of her career she spent as nursing supervisor for Arizona State University Student Health in Tempe, Ariz. She and her husband of 50 years, Robert, returned to the area about 15 years ago.
McNeil said her leadership experience at Arizona State and with the Hancock County Historical Museum Commission helped prepare her for the mayor's office.
McNeil said she also would like to find a solution to New Cumberland's traffic woes, on Station Hill and beyond.
She hopes improvements to Station Hill and state Route 2 get moved up the priority list in Charleston.
Blackwell said his most immediate concern is pedestrian traffic and safety on Station Hill and Second Avenue. In March, the city applied for a $250,000 state grant that would cover the cost of relocating the sidewalk that parallels Route 2 on Station Hill. That sidewalk has been closed since June 2012 because of deteriorating conditions and ongoing concerns about heavy truck traffic.
Another project, to install ramps at six intersections along Second and Third avenues, is on hold at the state level because of sections of Second Avenue sidewalks having possible historical value. Blackwell said the whole city has been targeted for handicapped-accessible improvements, but the available funding is enough for about 45 ramps.
"Of course," Blackwell said, "Route 2 is an issue, but I don't think the city can do much about relocating Route 2. We're kind of at the mercy of the state. You can make suggestions, but that doesn't mean your suggestion is going to fly."
Also a native of New Cumberland, Blackwell worked as a heavy equipment mechanic at Weirton Steel for 40 years, retiring in 2004. His service to the city began when he joined the New Cumberland Volunteer Fire Department at age 16 and expanded when he won his first election to City Council in the early1970s.
Blackwell has been mayor for two years - since his May 2011 appointment to fill the vacancy left by the resignation of Mayor Joe Sargent.
Among his biggest concerns is the city budget, particularly dwindling sources of revenue. "We've been very lucky, I guess you could say. The money we've been getting from video lottery - $114,000 - has been put to good use. That's a worry - is it still going to be coming in?" he said.
Revenue from gambling in West Virginia comes from three main sources: Table gaming at the state's racetrack casinos, slot machines at the casinos and limited video lottery. The latter is played at the hundreds of video lottery cafes that have sprung up since limited video lottery machines were legalized in 2001. New Cumberland has six such cafes, according to the West Virginia Lottery.
Two percent of the revenue from limited video lottery goes directly from the West Virginia Lottery to counties and cities. Two percent of the revenue from the slot machines at Mountaineer Casino, Racetrack and Resort goes to Hancock County commissioners, who share those profits with the county's three cities based on their population.
Last year, Mountaineer slot machines contributed $2.8 million to county coffers and $700,000 of that was divided among Chester, New Cumberland and Weirton.
Blackwell said the city can't rely on limited video lottery or table gaming for its budget because of the changing nature of the gaming industry in West Virginia and the changing habits of gaming patrons.
"These things run in cycles," he said. "I don't think the city should look at that as a good income source. ... Table gaming was a nice amount. It started out small and then built up to a substantial monthly check. Then it died off again. I think that's just a reality of table gaming."
Blackwell said New Cumberland's chief source of income is its tax base - the ad valorem (real and personal property) tax and the business and occupation tax. The latter has dropped off in recent years, he said, especially since the fatal industrial accident at AL Solutions in December 2010, he said.
Since then, AL Solutions has moved some of its operations to Pennsylvania, Blackwell said.
Although he's also concerned about revenues, Jones said he's been focusing his campaign on what he calls wasteful spending at the city level. "The money spent for a city should be no different than in your household, except it's on a bigger scale," he said.
Jones said his 20 years as a city employee has given him a unique view of city finances and city operations. More recently, he has served on City Council, getting elected to a Ward 1 seat in May 2011.
"The water/sewage department has overspent itself," Jones said. "They downplayed it for so long that the people don't realize that they're getting ready for a rate increase."
Jones said city employees are not happy with the current administration and that, if he's elected mayor, he will work equally for city residents and employees. "If you've got unhappy employees, you've got unhappy customers," he said.
Jones ran for mayor four years ago and lost by eight votes. This year, he believes he has a better chance. "I kind of feel if the public wants me, they'll put me in," he said.
Some residents claim he is disqualified because he does not live in New Cumberland. An anonymous letter addressed to West Virginia Secretary of State Natalie Tennant alleges that Jones "doesn't live within the city limits and never has."
Secretary of State spokesman Jake Glance would neither confirm nor deny that the claims are being investigated, saying he is prohibited by state law from saying anything.
But Jones maintains that he is a city resident, even if he doesn't live in New Cumberland all week long. Jones said he began renting an apartment on Pearl Street about five years ago.
Currently, he divides his time between the apartment and his wife's residence near Chester, he said. "With the high price of gasoline, I couldn't afford to keep driving back and forth from Chester, so I rented an apartment," he said.
Jones said he's not sure who's behind the allegations but maintains they're not true. "I've heard this story before. As far as I'm concerned, there's no truth to it at all," he said.
Early voting for the city elections begins Tuesday at the New Cumberland Municipal Building and continues through May 11. Early voting hours are 8 a.m. to 4 p.m. Saturday hours for early voting are 9 a.m. to 5 p.m.
For absentee voting instructions, call city hall at (304) 564-3383.