WORK SESSION: Veto Discussion Will Wait Until Monday; Fire Grant Purchase Clarified as Replacement

by Tony Rutherford HuntingtonNews.Net Reporter

HUNTINGTON, WV (HNN) – Do more than a few members of Huntington City Council have Mayor Wolfe’s veto of the spending ordinance on their minds? Judging by the lack of work session discussion, Feb. 10, the matter has silenced the city’s governing body. 

When offered the floor by Chairman Mark Bates, Councilman Jim Ritter deferred. “We’ll wait until Monday,” he said.

The veto vote will come after Mayor Wolfe delivers his State of the City address prior to the council meeting. Their challenges concerning the tax reform package will weigh heavily on both the administration and mayor since the state home rule board will not meet to consider Huntington’s proposal until mid-March.

Although Huntington Fire Chief , Craig Moore, quickly clarified previously reported council questions on whether a proposed grant obtained truck/rescue vehicle would be “replacement” or New, other council members continued through the open door.

Ritter and councilwoman Frances Jackson had earlier inquired about the distinction since a “new” apparatus would trigger around eleven new hires (by contract and other code principles). During a Finance Committee meeting members shared concerns about not obligating future councils to $515,000 in new hire salaries if the city obtained a grant which paid for the first two years.

Huntington has authorization to hire 106 firefighters, but in the budget squeeze Chief Moore agreed to leave unfilled six replacement positions (due to retirements) unfilled.  The money shored up what would have been a nearly depleted contingency fund. As a tradeoff and due to the hiring freeze, council and the administration gave him permission to reorganize the fire department ranks and organizational chart which improved staffing for the fire marshal and fire prevention.

During the work session, Moore told council, “We have budgeted for five to retire” in the coming year. These retirees meet both the years of service and age requirement. Moore did not limit the projection to five. He explained that others could “freeze” their retirement but not collect if they did not meet the age prong.

Since the Finance Committee meeting, Moore had been in contact with FEMA about modifying the grant application from ten to six firefighters. Some councilmembers wondered if they could tie the salaries of the six already authorized to the new firefighter grant.  The amendment is possible, though, Moore emphasized (to apparently unresponsive ears) that  “we may fall out of the first line” of possible choices by revising the application downward from ten to six firefighters.

As for funding the six, the answer was no way. The firefighters have to be new, not replacements.  

Councilman Russ Houck asked if the designated third year $515,000 figure included benefits, such as health . retirement and pensions, stating that it costs about $55,000 to put a firefighter on the street.

“We’re talking $880,000,” Houck stressed, adding, “We have a full [financial] plate to get back the six.”

Councilman Scott Caserta countered other speakers by classifying the possible grant as an “opportunity to put ten firefighters in place.”  He added that he felt comfortable with finding the necessary $500,000 of increased revenue in two years.

But Ritter disagreed.

“Unless we get the payroll tax, I do not think we will have the money… [revenue] will be stagnant without the occupation tax,” the Westmorland councilman observed.

At 6:30 p.m. one hour prior to the Valentine’s Day council meeting, Mayor Kim Wolfe delivers his State of the City address at City Hall. The public is invited.

In addition, former council member Paul Farrell will be installed as Circuit Judge, replacing Dan O’Hanlon Monday afternoon at 3 p.m.