Parkersburg committee recommends increasing fire, police fees

Photo by Evan Bevins Parkersburg City Council President J.R. Carpenter asks questions about a proposal to raise police and fire fees during a council Finance Committee meeting Thursday at the Municipal Building.

PARKERSBURG — City Council’s Finance Committee on Thursday unanimously referred to the full body a plan doubling police fees and raising fire fees by 115 percent to fund increased pension payments and construction of fire stations.

But not all council members are sold on the approach.

If passed, the increases would go into effect on July 1 with the start of the new fiscal year. It would mark the first changes to the fire and police fees since they were implemented in 1984 and 1987, respectively, city Finance Director Eric Jiles said.

“They’re the same rate today as they were back then,” he said.

The police fee is $4 a month for residences and $8 a month for commercial properties. Doubling it would generate an additional $834,000 a year, according to documents provided by Jiles.

Photo by Evan Bevins Parkersburg City Councilwoman Sharon Kuhl, left, speaks during a Finance Committee meeting Thursday as Councilman Zach Stanley listens.

The fire fee is assessed at 4.5 cents per square foot. Buildings with more than two stories are charged $100 per floor beyond the first two.

Raising the fire fee 115 percent would bring in another $1,863,000 a year, which, when combined with the higher police fee, would allow the city to cover the estimated $2.2 million a year in increased police and fire pension payments as the city works to amortize that unfunded liability and provide $250,000 a year for payments on bonds to replace three aging fire stations.

Finance Committee Chairman John Reed said the average resident’s fire fee would increase from $5.04 a month to $11.59 a month, based on figures from the Wood County Assessor’s Office.

The average monthly fee for commercial buildings would go from $17.82 to $40.99, according to Reed’s figures.

The increases were among two new proposals the committee considered after learning the city was not eligible to enact an additional 1 percent sales tax to dedicate to the pensions. The required payments increased after the city closed its existing plans to new hires in order to opt out of a plan that would have mandated the payments increase by 7 percent each year until fully funded.

Photo by Evan Bevins Parkersburg Mayor Tom Joyce speaks during a City Council Finance Committee meeting Thursday at the Municipal Building.

Under the new payment structure, the cost should eventually go down over time.

Mayor Tom Joyce’s administration had proposed doubling the police fee and increasing the fire fee by 35 percent, then imposing a utility tax on gas, water and electrical service to generate $1.2 million a year. That would have mostly erased the savings customers realized when the city eliminated its business and occupation tax on utilities (not including water) with the approval of the 1 percent sales tax that went into effect in 2015.

Generating the needed revenue solely through police and fire fees was the suggestion of Reed and Councilman Zach Stanley.

Councilman Eric Barber, who is not a member of the committee, said he felt the increases should be more spread out, including perhaps a quarter added onto the user fee paid by people working in the city.

“People who don’t live inside the city but work (here) aren’t going to pay a penny,” he said.

Photo by Evan Bevins Parkersburg City Councilman Mike Reynolds, left, reads a statement on potential personnel cuts as Councilman Bob Mercer listens during a council Finance Committee meeting Thursday at the Municipal Building.

Reed said the idea behind only raising the police and fire fees was that the increased revenue is needed for police and fire expenses. He also argued against increasing many fees by smaller amounts.

“It just seemed to be overpowering to say we advocate raising every fee in the city plus adding a new one,” he said, referring to the utility tax.

Council President J.R. Carpenter, who also is not on the committee, said the city shouldn’t need to generate over $2 million annually since it passed the municipal sales tax that brings in roughly $5 million a year.

“The money is there. It has been coming in for two years,” he said. “Four million dollars in new revenue stream we’ve never had before can’t just evaporate.”

Jiles noted that with the required B&O reductions, the net increase in revenue was closer to $3 million a year. That additional money has been used on additional street paving, new equipment purchases and the increasing pension payments, he said.

Photo by Evan Bevins Parkersburg City Council Finance Committee Chairman John Reed discusses plans to generate additional funds to address increased fire and police pension payments and construction of fire stations during a committee meeting Thursday at the Municipal Building.

Carpenter said it was premature to discuss raising the fees without council being presented with a budget proposal, which usually happens in February.

Councilman Mike Reynolds, a committee member, said even though he voted to refer the fee increases, he did not feel comfortable approving them as council until the budget was presented. Earlier in the meeting, Reynolds and Councilman Bob Mercer recommended Joyce propose staffing reductions, primarily through attrition, during the budget process.

Reed said council needed to give the mayor and finance director an idea of the direction in which they wanted to go so they could prepare the budget. If more cuts are made and not as much money is needed, he said, the increases could be reduced during the budget process.

Joyce said council had already received a glimpse of what a budget without the fee increases would look like when he and Jiles presented in September a proposal for generating the additional pension money solely through cuts.

“Cuts would be deep and across the board,” Joyce said.

Photo by Evan Bevins From left, Parkersburg City Councilmen Dave McCrady, Jeff Fox, Bob Mercer and J.R. Carpenter discuss a proposal to raise police and fire fees to cover increased pension costs after council’s Finance Committee, of which Mercer is a member, referred the plan to the full council Thursday.

Previously, Reed had assigned two subcommittees to talk with department heads about ways to reduce costs through spending cuts and personnel reductions. Reynolds and Mercer were assigned the latter subject.

Stanley and Councilwoman Sharon Kuhl recommended reducing the uniform allowance given to police and firefighters from $800 a year to $500, which would save an estimated $40,000.


Proposed Fee Increases

* The fire fee would increase 115 percent, raising annual revenue by $1,863,000.

* The average residential bill would go from $5.04 to $11.59 a month.

* The average commercial bill would go from $17.82 to $40.99 a month.

* The police fee would double, raising annual revenue by $834,000.

* Residential fees would go to $8 a month and commercial fees to $16 a month.

* The additional funds would go to fire and pension payments ($2,214,075 a year) and bonds for three new fire stations ($250,000 a year).