Newell puts focus on slum, blight

PARKERSBURG – Several years ago, the city spent a quarter of a million dollars to raze 35 blighted properties.

Mayor Bob Newell told Parkersburg City Council members Tuesday it doesn’t seem to have made much of a difference.

“We’ll see what tearing down a lot more does,” he said.

During his executive message at Tuesday’s regular meeting in council chambers, Newell told council he would bring them “a pretty significant proposal” for dealing with slum and blighted areas in the next month.

“I don’t know what I’m going to come back with; I really have no idea, but I will come back with something,” he said.

Usually, the city demolishes about a dozen houses a year. Newell said that north of the Little Kanawha River alone, there are approximately 160 properties that “people have just walked away from.”

“We need to put much more money into (it) than we have,” he said.

In an Urban Renewal Authority meeting earlier this month, Councilman Mike Reynolds suggested dedicating $100,000 of the $1 million budgeted for street repairs to demolition of abandoned properties. The mayor said that could be considered, but he also wants to look at preventing some structures from reaching that point.

Over the next month, Newell said he plans to talk with business leaders and others about ways to deal with slum and blight. He said he’d like to develop incentives for contractors to rehabilitate structures into the housing the city needs as the oil and natural gas industry brings more people to the area.

Earlier in the evening, council’s Personnel Committee met and agreed to send a proposed amendment to allow a qualified civilian to serve as chief fire inspector to the full council.

Newell said his first choice would still be to have a city firefighter take the job, but there has been a lack of interest that he attributes to the inspector’s work week being 40 hours, compared to a firefighter’s 54.

“You make more money on a shift; it’s as simple as that,” he said.

Members of Parkersburg Firefighters Local 91, the union representing the city’s firefighters, sent a letter to committee members urging them to reject the proposed amendment.

“We feel if the pay rate was comparable to other municipalities, the amount of qualified applicants from within the department would greatly increase,” the letter says.

Newell said that in the past, the city has tried to make up the difference by paying the fire inspector for working 48 hours, even though the individual only worked 40.

“I’m not willing to do that,” he said.

Fire Lt. Jason Matthews said during the meeting he wasn’t suggesting that.

“I don’t think any of us believe that it should be equal, but when looking at comparable cities … the salary is low,” he said.

A private starting out on the department makes about $36,000 a year, while the inspector job earns $38,000, Fire Chief Eric Taylor said. But the hourly rate for the inspector is higher than even that of a captain, Newell said.

The chief inspector position has been vacant for nearly a year, after Capt. Tim Flinn elected to go back to shift work. He has still been doing inspector duties, which Newell said primarily deal with approving building plans. However, that additional work is believed to be contributing to at least some of the $8,617.08 in overtime Flinn has accrued this year.

Two members of the department did express an interest in the job, but Newell and Taylor said neither was interviewed. When committee Chairwoman Sharon Lynch asked why, Taylor said one was a private who did not have the necessary management experience, while the other was a lieutenant without the proper certifications.

Newell noted that one reason the position has not been filled is because he was seeking clarification on whether the chief inspector job was appointed or had to be filled through a civil service test. City Attorney Joe Santer has indicated it is an appointed position, the mayor said, but he has asked Santer to do more research.

The ordinance was approved 3-2 by the committee, with Lynch and Councilwoman Nancy Wilcox opposed. A separate ordinance creating an assistant fire inspector/public education position that could be held by a firefighter or civilian also passed with little discussion by the same margin.