Mayor Calls For B&O Tax Change

WHEELING – Mayor Andy McKenzie wants to review the City Charter and overhaul the business and occupation tax structure to help create new opportunities as he and other leaders look to rebuild downtown Wheeling.

During McKenzie’s fourth State of the City address Tuesday, he also revived the idea of relocating the city’s Operations Center from its present Clator location to make room for private development – and hinted at the potential for institutions of higher learning to take a greater role in downtown development – during a 30-minute speech before a Capitol Theatre ballroom audience of nearly 200.

“The state of our city remains solid, and your City Council is as committed as ever to preserving and enhancing our abundant quality of life,” McKenzie said.

McKenzie called for council this year to form a committee to explore the need for a formal charter review. If the committee decides changes are warranted, council would add the formation of a formal charter review commission to the May 2014 ballot. If approved, that body then would propose charter revisions to be added to the ballot in November 2014.

The city last underwent a formal charter review in 1992, which resulted in a number of transformative changes, including the election of mayors by popular vote rather than by appointment of council; reducing the size of City Council from nine members to six; and the practice of having council members represent each individual ward rather than the city at large. It takes a supermajority of council – five votes – to initiate the process.

McKenzie’s B&O Tax proposal would eliminate the current deduction on the tax for downtown businesses, which he said did not provide enough of an incentive for new construction. In its place, the city would create a new credit that businesses could use against construction and sales. He also proposed a flat permit fee for downtown construction over the next five years.

“As we work to reinvent our downtown, we must be willing to make changes that benefit those who are interested in our community. … While our city as a whole has seen many businesses open and expand, we have not enjoyed that same level of investment in our downtown. By eliminating barriers for development, I hope to encourage new investment and even give current businesses the opportunity to move into downtown,” McKenzie said.

Regarding the Operations Center, McKenzie urged fellow council members to explore potential relocation sites and move forward with selling the property on Hunter Avenue. More than four years ago, council authorized City Manager Robert Herron to seek proposals from interested buyers, but nothing ever came of it.

Noting the site’s proximity to Interstate 70 and Wheeling Hospital, McKenzie believes now is the time to revisit the idea.

“I believe through a mutually beneficial sale of the property, we can build a new, state-of-the-art Operations Center, while generating new development and investment in our city,” he said.

And in pointing out the expansion of West Virginia Northern Community College’s campus into the former Straub buildings at 16th and Market streets, the mayor noted downtown “might soon house other higher educational facilities,” though he did not elaborate on that statement.

McKenzie also addressed the West Virginia Division of Highways’ $100 million plan to renovate every Interstate 70 bridge between the Ohio and Pennsylvania state lines. He said state leaders are discussing two options – a two-year work schedule that would result in entire sections of the interstate being shut down, or an extended plan that would involve lane restrictions only but take up to eight years. While McKenzie said city leaders understand the work is necessary, they want to work closely with state officials to keep the resulting inconvenience to city residents at a minimum.

The mayor also reviewed changes made over the past year, including the demolition of much of the 1100 block of Main and Market streets, the leveling of an entire East Wheeling block to make way for the future J.B. Chambers Recreation Park, voters’ repeal of a 40-year-old law requiring two police officers in every patrol cruiser and steps taken toward construction of a new water treatment plant.

He also presented Miracle League of the Ohio Valley founder Lorraine McCardle with the second annual Community Spirit Award, recognizing her efforts toward construction of a Miracle Field on which special needs children will be able to play baseball beginning May 18. Susan Hogan was the award’s first recipient last year.

“It touched my heart,” McCardle said of receiving the award. “This is important to me. I truly appreciate it, but it’s time to play ball.”

Following McKenzie’s speech, the reaction from council members was generally positive.

Councilwoman Gloria Delbrugge said she believes the mayor is “on the right track” and agrees Wheeling is due for a charter review.

“It’s been since 1992. I think it’s time. … This is a new generation, so it’s time for a change,” she said.

Delbrugge added she’d like to see an increase in council members’ compensation from the $8,500 annual salary provided for under the 1992 charter. She said a lot of people believe council members only attend two meetings a month, but their responsibilities also include serving on various committees and constantly being responsive to the needs of their constituents.

“I don’t think people realize what council members do,” Delbrugge said.

Councilman David Miller was enthusiastic about the B&O tax proposal, noting he believes it will ultimately encourage new businesses to come downtown.

“It’s the private sector that goes out and spends the money,” he said. “That’s the engine that normally drives economic development.”

Councilman Robert “Herk” Henry also said he liked what he heard from McKenzie Tuesday.

“We want to back him, and we want all this stuff to be done,” Henry said.