Mayor Wolfe's Veto Sustained at Lengthy Council Meeting; Laid Off Employee Initiates Debate

by Tony Rutherford HuntingtonNews.Net Reporter
Mayor Wolfe's Veto Sustained at Lengthy Council Meeting; Laid Off Employee Initiates Debate

HUNTINGTON, WV (HNN) – Mayor Kim Wolfe has proposed re-opening City Hall on Fridays and restoring pay to those previously reduced by 10%, but fiscal 2011-2012 cuts would come from all departments.

“The most significant are cuts in personnel, within Finance, the Mayor’s Office, Public Works, civilian staff of the Police Department and keeping the current vacancies unfilled within the Fire Department for a second year in a row.”

Overall, the proposed budget anticipate “flat” revenue growth in two-thirds of the city’s 36 sources. For instance, the budget foresees a $450,000 increase in B & O tax revenue, but a $350,000 decrease in municipal service fees and a modest $50,000 increase from the city service fees.

The proposed budget does not include revenue that could be generated from the city’s tax reform package which goes before the State Home Rule Committee in mid-March.

At the council meeting, the shift of the public Good and Welfare section to just after “Reports of the Mayor” found one of three immediately laid off employees expressing displeasure not only with the loss of his 20 year position but disdain for the manner in which he was informed. Victor Crutcher, former barricade inspector in the street department,

The State of the City address stated that with the hiring of Public Works Director, David Hagley, and assistant public works director, Kit Anderson, the “consistent leadership” has focused on prior areas of neglect such as stormwater, landfill closure, reorganization of inspections and compliance and its work processes.

“We have overhauled the hiring practices within Public Works,” Wolfe said. “When filling vacancies, hiring is based upon merit and not that of minimum qualifications and seniority.”

Local 598 President Danny Plybon followed Crutcher arguing that while city union contracts have not been renewed “past practices” have been followed. He emphasized that “going to the bottom and coming up,” along with bumping and bidding rights on other jobs should not be replaced by a merit system.

“What if the [supervisor] is not qualified to make the decision [to lay off an employee]?”

Council member Frances Jackson expressed visible upset about the immediacy of the 20 year layoff and the choice of an employee with seniority. “It’s a shame to be laid off after 20 years,” she stated. Actually the dialogue between Jackson and Plybon related to Crutcher’s circumstances continued working its way into more specifics. Ms. Jackson rejected a cut-off from another council member emphasizing her union negotiation experience, but city attorney Scott McClure eventually intervened citing the privacy of personnel discussions.

VETO SUSTAINED BY 7-3 MARGIN

Mayor Wolfe had previously vetoed a council ordinance that would have reduced the spending authority of city departments. Prior to 2009, purchases over $5,000 had to be approved by council and put out for bid. The level was raised after 25 years at $5,000 to $15,000 on an inflation style rationalization.

However, council had narrowly voted 6-5 to reduce the authority back to $7,500. Wolfe vetoed the measure.

Speaking eloquently for the Mayor, Charles Holley, director of planning and development, explained that the advertising for bid, ordinance preparation and time elements essentially adds $1,000 to the procurement costs of a $7,500 purchase. Holley indicated that “reducing procuring authority” reduces “productivity,” adding that small contractors are not able to meet all the specifications (such as bonds) for items placed out for bid.

In addition, vice council chairwoman Sandra Clements supported the veto.

“We do not have any strong evidence that the Mayor is not following procedure. He has done a good job [with the $15,000 limit].”

Former Council chairman Jim Insco made the Motion to Override the Mayor’s Veto. However, the veto was sustained by a vote of 7-3 with Rebecca Thacker absent due to illness.

NEW HIRE FIREFIGHTERS GRANT APPLICATION RESOLUTION FAILED

Council gave a unanimous thumbs up to acquiring a new fire apparatus through a 2010 Fire Act Grant. After clarification that the new truck would be a ‘replacement’, not an additional apparatus, even activist Tom McCallister approved of accepting what he called a “gift from ourselves.”

“If we don’t take it, someone else will,” McCallister stated.

He did suggest, though, that council re-consider annexation of Interstate 64 stressing that much of the mileage , wear and tear on city vehicles, and costly accidents happen on the interstate.

However, a mostly one-sided debate occurred when confronted with the proposed acceptance of a grant to hire ten additional firefighters. The first two years of their employment would be paid by the grant, but the city would have to come up with over half a million dollars for their salary and benefits the third year.

Council had asked Fire Chief Craig Moore to clarify grant stipulations, among them revising downward the commitment of new hires and whether the grant could be used to fill six currently unfilled positions.

“We found out what we did not want to hear,” stated Mayor Wolfe summarizing the answers Moore had received.

Moore made a reasonably convincing argument that with the number of retirement anticipated this year (five) and the amount of hiring and training time ( approximately five months) that the city’s decision now on the grant ensures the readiness of the Huntington Fire Department in the near future.

But, to take advantage of the grant, the city would have to fill six positions that have remained open in fiscal 2010-2011. Mayor Wolfe’s 2011-2012 budget proposal continues leaving these positions unfilled.

Under the grant, though, the City of Huntington would have to fill those positions within 90 or with an extension possibly 180 days.

Councilman Scott Caserta argued for the grant.

“Better to have jobs for three years than none at all,” adding he was “torn” in determining his vote.

As a final attempt to swing council in favor of the resolution, Caserta inquired whether the city would save any fire department overtime wages with the proposed grant and new hires. The possibility surfaced of delaying the vote until after studying the proposed 2011-2012 budget and after the budget hearings. But, this strategy was jettisoned when Chief Moore indicated that the grant decision makers required a “yes” vote on the resolution before proceeding to a decision.

Moore indicated that Huntington had made a first round cut-off, but the FEMA grantees had found many city’s unable to provide the third year salaries. Thus, this vote was a commitment rather than simply permission to apply.

Council Finance Committee director Steve Williams told members , “I don’t think we have $880,000 to play with. Taking on an additional ten [firefighters] is not proper public policy.” (Editor’s Note: The $880,000 represents an approximate $55,000 per position cost for the six unfilled positions and the cost of the ten new hires in the third year.)

Council member Nate Randolph called the situation one with “too many gambles.”

Finally, Local 598 president Plybon accented that the city needs not just police and fire but ALL types of protection in reference to public works employees. “Cuts have dwindled our union away,” he said, suggesting that “we’ve lost 30 jobs in the last five years.”

The grant resolution failed 9-1. Caserta cast the only vote in favor.

Council also approved the second reading of an ordinance that would equip police cruisers with field reporting software. Chief Skip Holbrook indicated that officers have laptop computers in their cruisers but cannot yet talk to each other via computer. That is coming, Holbrook said.

“This is a game changer,” Caserta stated referring both to safety and efficiency issues.

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