Vienna City Council debates police fee

Photo by Brett Dunlap Vienna City Councilman Roger Bibbee talks about concerns of possibly eliminating police funding if the city’s police fee is eliminated, during Thursday’s council meeting.

VIENNA — The Vienna Police Fee, instituted over 40 years ago to give senior citizens a reduced rate, may have been done improperly, according to the city attorney’s opinion.

The city council debated the fee during Thursday meeting when Councilman Roger Conley said he wanted to see it eliminated for senior citizens after it was recently reduced for seniors by 50 percent.

He said the city was faced with a few options: eliminate it completely, reduce it by the same 50 percent for non-seniors or put the seniors, 65 years old or older, back at the original rate.

“I think we need to discuss and move forward on an option,” Conley said.

Under the ordinance, once residents are 65 years old, they can ask for a reduction, officials said.

“This is the way the fee has been administered for 43 years,” said City Attorney Russell Skogstad Jr. “In my legal opinion…I think our ordinance is unlawful as it creates two classes of people in the city, one that pays the full amount and one that pays at a reduced amount because of age.”

Skogstad said there are people who live in Vienna, working minimum wage jobs or who are disabled that have to pay the full fee while there are seniors who are well off, own multiple properties and are able to get a reduced fee.

“There is no difference in services provided to either group,” he said. “Everyone receives the same police service. There is no provision in the West Virginia code that allows for charging different police fees for different people.”

Skogstad said the city is essentially creating two classes of people which it cannot do under West Virginia law.

“There is no rational basis, under our current ordinance, to continue to allow seniors to get the discount,” he said. “In my opinion, our ordinance is not valid.”

He suggested they could leave it as is and wait for someone to challenge it in court; council could eliminate the fee entirely for everyone; eliminate the exemption so everyone pays the same amount; or eliminate the exemption for seniors and reduce it for everyone else so everyone pays the same amount.

“The seniors taking the exemption would end up paying more while everyone else would pay less,” Skogstad said. “In my opinion, any proposal that doesn’t result in everyone paying the same amount is an unlawful proposal.

“The intent of the police fee is to make sure we have a capable and well-equipped police force to answer calls.”

The money collected, which totals around $215,000 a year, is put in the city’s general fund and specifically earmarked for the police to use. If the fee is eliminated then that money would also be eliminated from police use, city officials said.

“There is no way I would support that,” Councilman Roger Bibbee said.

Conley said the police chief submits a budget just like every department head.

“I know there is no one up here who would do anything to adversely affect the police department, whether you have a police fee or not,” he said.

If the city continues with the police fee in any form, Conley wants action from council that the money should be “set aside and used only for the police department and nobody else.”

He also suggested that city officials have 10 months to look at the city finances to see if cuts could be made that would not hurt the police department but still allow the city to eliminate the police fee.

Mayor Randy Rapp said if the city would eliminate the fee, as is, cuts would have to be made to other city departments to make up that difference.

Bibbee said he has advocated for a reduction in the police fee for the citizens of Vienna.

Officials asked the city finance director to come up with cost estimates on what a single rate for everyone would bring in and officials would be able to discuss it further and possibly take action.

In other business, council heard a proposal for the establishment of a Senior Adult Playground at Jackson Park.

“It is a way for seniors to stay fit,” said Linda Kern.

All-weather exercise equipment would be placed along the walking paths at the park, which would allow people to exercise in different ways. The equipment would have people use their arms and more.

“We would like to support this,” Kern said. “We have the room and a lot of non-profits who want to back us up on this.”

A similar setup was put in Marietta along Front Street and many people are using it, Kern said.

Rapp said he toured the one in Marietta.

“All the stations are low impact,” he said. “It is not about building muscles; it is keeping yourself flexible.”

Kern wanted council’s support to continue to explore doing this, looking into grant funding and detail what everything will cost.