Agenda keeps Parkersburg officials busy

PARKERSBURG – First readings of ordinances tied to the mayor’s offensive against slum and blight passed while a motion to approve bonds to buy vehicles for the Parkersburg Utility Board died for lack of a second at Tuesday’s City Council meeting.

The initial reading of an ordinance creating as many as eight assistant fire inspector positions was approved 8-1, while the establishment of a registry for vacant houses with a $100-a-month fee moved forward on a 7-2 vote.

But the first reading of an ordinance allowing the PUB to acquire up to $1 million to replace aging vehicles never came to a vote.

Councilman Jim Reed made a motion to approve the reading, but no one seconded it.

After the meeting, PUB Manager Eric Bennett said the money is needed to lease-purchase two backhoes, a dump truck, a jet-vac truck and three pickups to replace vehicles that have been in service from 12 to 20 years. He was not sure why the motion did not receive a second.

“I’ll have to speak with them and find out what’s going on,” Bennett said after the meeting.

Councilman Roger Brown said he didn’t want to see the PUB taking on more debt after council approved a sewer rate increase, in part based on the wastewater plant upgrade, earlier this year. Councilwoman Sharon Lynch echoed his concerns.

“I think that we have … raised the citizens’ rates enough right now,” she said.

Mayor Bob Newell, who serves as the non-voting chairman of the utility board, said after the meeting that the rates already in place will cover the expense. If council members had concerns about it, they should have addressed them during the meeting, he said.

“They should have said, ‘What is this?'” Newell said.

The mayor said no council members contacted him about the ordinance prior to the meeting.

“Councilpeople have the obligation, if they don’t understand what they’re voting on, to call ahead and ask,” he said.

Council President John Rockhold said he could not second the motion since he was running the meeting. He suggested to PUB officials that they bring the ordinance back through the Finance Committee so questions could be answered there.

Sometimes people “don’t want to expose their ignorance in this meeting,” Rockhold said. “That may have been a fault of mine that we didn’t spend a little more time educating.”

The first reading of an ordinance authorizing the acquisition of up to $13.7 million in bonds by the PUB for a federally mandated upgrade to the wastewater treatment plant did pass 8-1, with Brown opposed.

The assistant fire inspector ordinance was the sole agenda item for a personnel committee meeting earlier in the evening that lasted more than 45 minutes.

Most of that time was spent in closed, executive session. Committee members cited the personnel exemption to open meetings law in asking everyone but Newell, members of council and Assistant City Attorney Rob Tebay to leave the executive conference room on the second floor of the city building.

The ordinance would keep the assistant inspectors working on regular, 54-hour shifts and pay them an additional $1,200 a year, in an effort to relieve the code enforcement department of some of its workload inspecting dilapidated buildings. Newell said some council members thought the creation of these positions meant the city was doing away with the chief fire inspector post. He said that was not the case and that all the positions allowed wouldn’t necessarily be filled.

“It is up to eight people that we want to have in there that are trained,” he said.

Because only certain firefighters qualify, their names were likely to come up, which is why the executive session was called, Newell said.

The first reading of the ordinance passed during the full council meeting with no discussion. Councilwoman Nancy Wilcox was the sole “no” vote.

Councilman John Kelly raised questions about the vacant house registry, which would assess a fee of $100 a month on the owners of structures left vacant for more than a year unless they were actively being improved or up for sale. Newell has said the reason for the fee is to help offset the cost the city incurs when securing and maintaining such structures.

Kelly said he felt the fee should not be imposed on structures that were being kept in a family and maintained, even if they weren’t active residences.

“As long as they keep that property up, I don’t think there should be any recourse against them,” he said.

City Attorney Joe Santer said the fee would apply.

“Even if it’s maintained, it’s still going to need to be registered,” he said.

The first reading was approved 7-2, with Kelly and Councilman Roger Brown opposed.

Newell said after the meeting the intent of the ordinance is to address dilapidated properties and eyesores and he’s willing to have the ordinance amended to address issues like Kelly’s example.

“I don’t mind revisiting that before the next meeting,” he said.

Earlier in the evening, council’s Public Works Committee voted unanimously to reject a proposed agreement to allow Pennsylvania-based Utility Service Partners Inc. to offer insurance on water, sewer and natural gas lines.

The program is endorsed by the National League of Cities and covers repairs to the lines with no deductible for $5 to $7 a month. It would have used city-based plumbers, and the city could have received 50 cents a month per policy.

The company doesn’t offer the program unless it’s in partnership with the city, which would have to agree to allow the company to use its logo on all materials, including bills. Santer was concerned that would open Parkersburg up to legal action if problems arose, even though the company said it would indemnify the city.

“That insurance would be a great (opportunity) for the residents,” Councilman J.R. Carpenter said. “But I’m not willing to compromise the city’s logo or identity or … integrity.”

Carpenter noted the company could still offer the insurance without the city’s endorsement, but representatives have said they are not willing to do that.