WEIRTON - The City of Weirton's budget review committee, comprised of members of Weirton City Council and community representatives, met for a third time Wednesday, and members pitched various hypothetical scenarios with the goal of closing the $1.8 million gap in the municipal budget and potentially generating additional revenue to fund new projects.
In March, city council passed a $14.6 million budget for the 2015 fiscal year, which begins July 1. If nothing changes, officials expect a budget shortfall within the next year.
The committee hopes to have a plan to pass to city council by July 1, with the possibilities of decreased services, higher fees and taxes, new fees and taxes, or levies for select services, among the options.
Pat Ford, committee member and executive director of the Business Development Corp. of the Northern Panhandle, presented some of his research on the matter.
He began by listing six things that business owners look for in a city: a favorable business climate with low taxes, an available work force, an available market within a 60-minute radius, the image and brand of the city which involves the fiscal responsibility of legislators, the quality and variety of local schools and a low crime rate.
Ford then outlined the available "tools in the tool box" and roughly how much could be generated from each.
If the residential police and fire service fee was raised from $50 to $75 per household per year, keeping proportion with commercial and church/school police and fire service fees, it would generate about $1,012,919.
If the municipal service fee was increased from $2 a week per employee to $3 a week it would generate $420,000 more for infrastructure and paving.
If a cable franchise fee with Comcast is implemented, it would bring in about $252,013. Using Moundsville as a benchmark, Ford said, another option is for the city to implement a 0.25 percent sales tax which he said would yield about $1 million. Combined, all of these measure would generate a total of approximately $2,684,932, meeting and exceeding the future $1.8 million shortfall, according to Ford.
He said that local business owners are not averse to helping the city "fill the gap," and they do not want service cuts. However, they are opposed to the business and occupation tax, which they view as an unfair "double hit."
"If we did something like 25 percent of the maximum rate of an across the board B and O tax, it would be approximately $2.2 million," Rick Stead, Weirton police officer and committee member, pointed out. "My opinion is that we're really limited in what we can do faced with a deficit and other residual things that need fixed too. If we want the city to have some capital for growth, I don't see any other choice. I think we have to have a B and O tax."
Committee members agreed once again that any solution they choose to advise to council must be a permanent fix, not something that simply "gets us through the next year."
Ford inquired about the possibility of privatizing some of the services offered by the city, like garbage or garage maintenance.
Ward 6 Councilman and committee chair David Dalrymple said that has been considered in the past, but preliminary findings suggest it would cost up to 10 times more than working in-kind between city departments.
Ward 4 Councilman George Ash, Sr., disliked the idea of raising the $2 per week municipal service fee. He argued that for many of Weirton's citizens in low-paying jobs, that extra couple of dollars per week makes a huge difference. Ash favors the B and O option instead.
"Just since March alone, there's been eight businesses that came in here from out of state, did work in the city limits and were stunned to find out we don't have a B and O tax," Ash said. "That is profit in their pocket because when they make up their contracts, they automatically put a percentage in there for B and O. One company even commented that we are the only city in West Virginia that they know of without a B and O tax. They expect to pay it."
"I really feel that we don't have a lot of time, and we have limited options. We have to move forward on something, and that something to me is the B and O tax," Stead agreed.
"I'm not saying I'm a fan of B and O. I think it's a regressive, terrible act. But the perception in the city is that it's a huge money grabber, and I think that's inaccurate. Contractors only pay about $50 up front in Wheeling. It's not a deal breaker," Dalrymple added.
Dalrymple requested that members present their favored combination of options in a outlined scenario to the next meeting Wednesday at 6:30 p.m. in Room 201 of the Municipal Building. The committee members hope to come out of the next meeting with a solid suggestion for city council to work with.
(Dalrymple can be contacted at firstname.lastname@example.org)