Morgantown council passes budget amid uncertain future

MORGANTOWN, W.Va. – With a four “yes” and three “no” votes Morgantown City Council approved the $39.7 million FY 2020-21 budget. Due to the COVID-19 crisis council members met virtually for the first time.

Finance Director Jim Goff told council members that due to the COVID-19 crisis, the annual July budget correction will reflect the loss of revenue due to the shutdown.

This version of the budget includes a 13 percent increase in the fire service fee that will generate $435,000 in revenue. The budget funds six SAFER Grant firefighters at a budgeted cost of $427,740. The budget will allow six current SAFER Grant firefighters to be lost to attrition.

The budget presented on March 3 included a 10 percent increase in the fire service fee and allowed the loss of all 12 SAFER Grant firefighters to attrition.

International Fire Fighters Local 313 president Jayson Nicewarner spoke in opposition of the spending plan and says the handling of this matter has had a detrimental effect on department morale.

“The City Manager originally recommended eliminating all 12 of these positions through attrition,”Nicewarner said,”At the March 3 council meeting he lowered that recommendation to six positions and most recently at the March 10 budget workshop he recommended keeping all 12 positions through a 23 percent increase in the fire service fee.”

Councilor Ron Dulaney voted against the budget, and despite submitting several detailed questions prior to the March 10 budget workshop Dulaney had no further inquiry.

“I have asked the questions that I have, and I have little confidence at this point that any questions that I still have will be answered this evening in a way that would be constructive or compel me to vote for the budget,” Dulaney said.

Councilors Zack Cruze and Barry Wendell each voiced a commitment to keep the firefighters and felt the process was rushed.

Dulaney questioned the city manager’s use of the budget to change city policy without the consent of council.

“Presenting a budget with the reduction of firefighter positions, implementing more aggressive universal rental housing inspections, increasing the fire fee, an across the board cost of living adjustment and yes, a four-day work week,”Dulaney said,”Without any prior dialog with council before our first budget work session and within the original two-week working period is just not acceptable.”

Deputy Mayor Rachel Fetty, councilors Jenny Selin and Dave Harshbarger all said it was important to pass the budget now in order to meet the state deadline, and make changes later.

Additionally, Fetty and Selin said state officials should offer some relief given the current crisis situation.

Finance Director jim Goff says the three week shutdown at the end of the first quarter could drop revenues by as much as $600,000, and the second quarter is impossible to project. Goff told council members all descresitionary spending has been halted.

“Our second quarter just got torpedoed,”Goff said,”I mean it’s impossible to project what this will do to our budget.”

Zack Cruze told City Manager Paul Brake he expects to have reasonably reliable, vetted data regarding the budget and different options.

“I’m not comfortable with this notion that we vote for things and then fix later,”Cruze said,”That’s not what I was elected for and that’s not the purpose of council.”

The budget does include the addition of Vincent Kitch as the new Director of Arts and Cultural Development. Kitch was selected from a field of 112 candidates to serve in the newly created position at an annual salary of $62,000. Fitch comes to Morgantown from Fort Collins, Colorado, where he served as the Director of Cultural Services.

The position is part of the grant agreement associated with the Hazel Ruby McQuain Riverfront Park renovation. The position is funded from the General Fund and was first part of the FY-19-20 budget in the City Manager’s Office personnel costs.