WEIRTON - The possibility of decreasing services or increasing fees was a major point of discussion Wednesday as Weirton city officials began preparing the 2014-2015 fiscal budget.
The mayor, city manager, city finance director, members of city council and several department heads gathered Wednesday for their first workshop on the budget, which would go into effect July 1.
Mayor George Kondik began by asking for ideas regarding sources of revenue.
"We all know that the budget is in bad shape," Ward 4 Councilman George Ash Sr. said. "The Park Board right now gets $514,000 a year, and it'd be a shame to take that away from them. But if we don't have the money, we might have to do that. I really don't want to have to do that, but it's one of our options."
Ash went on to say there is $840,000 projected on the budget draft for paving that could be slimmed down.
Ward 5 Councilman George Gaughenbaugh noted that this winter has been particularly hard on the city's roads and described areas of Marland Heights as a "war zone" full of potholes. If paving is to be narrowed down, more patch repairs will be necessary to make up for it, he said.
Ash also suggested implementing a new business and occupation tax, which is a source of revenue for many West Virginia cities. The tax would apply to certain business activities and could generate up to $4.5 million in additional funding per year, according to Ash.
Another option is to raise service fees, a generally unpopular idea according to officials.
Ash made his stance clear, saying "I will support an across-the-board B and O tax. I will not support raising services fees, and that includes this Comcast excise tax."
"I will not support the B and O tax," Ward 3 Councilman Fred Marsh stated. "Businesses carry most of the tax burden as it is, and with our position between states, I think the B and O would be the nail in the coffin."
Marsh argued that the excise tax, or cable franchise fee, would be a better solution because it gives residents the freedom of choice. If they do not want to pay the tax, they can choose to forego cable.
The excise tax could bring in an estimated $500,000 in revenue per year, Kondik said.
City Finance Director Thomas Maher specified that the tax would come directly from Comcast, making it the company's decision whether fees get passed down to customers.
"There is no guarantee we would get the franchise fee, because they still have to agree," Means noted.
Ash speculated that if the city succeeds in implementing home rule, council could introduce a 1 percent sales tax, which would eliminate the need for B and O.
"That's something we would have to work with the state on," City Manager Valerie Means said.
"We're at the mercy of the state here, to a point," Marsh agreed.
Ward 2 Councilman Chuck Wright brought the conversation back around to raising service fees.
"I don't think a $25 increase, once a year, to pay for our safety services would be a burden too big handle," Wright said. "The fact of the matter is that it costs more and more to support our safety forces every year, so I don't think it's really that big of an imposition."
Everyone present acknowledged that cutting back on spending across the board would be necessary for the next year, and Ash insisted there should be no more lay-offs.
"We don't have enough personnel as it is. We can't afford to lose any more," he said.
Alternately, Ward 7 Councilman Terry Weigel said the city cannot afford to hire any more either.
"I think if we're going to raise revenue we need to have a clear idea of how it will be used. I won't agree to anything until we know exactly where it's going," Weigel said.
Means mentioned that the budget is due in Charleston in March, which poses a time constraint. She presented the option of sending the budget in as it stands and continuing to work on revenue ideas and cut-backs to be ready for the beginning of the new fiscal year in July. She also cautioned against delaying changes for too long, noting that city officials will find themselves worse off this time next year if actions are not taken.
"No matter what we do, it will require council legislation, readings of ordinances and things like that," Means said.
Officials agreed to meet again next Feb. 26 at 6:30 p.m. to continue the budget discussion. In the meantime, department heads will revise their individual budgets and requests in an attempt to slim spending down further.
(Dalrymple can be contacted at firstname.lastname@example.org)