At a poorly attended meeting of Parkersburg City Council’s Finance Committee this week, the three members who were present voted to make an unsettling recommendation to the council as a whole: Enact a dedicated 1 percent sales tax to help fund the police and fire pension liability that has gotten absurdly out of control.
Because the decision that led to this mess was made in 1991, and only three current members of Parkersburg city government have ever before been in a position to do anything about it, the matter now falls in the laps of the current city council. For at least two-and-a-half months, that council has known it needs to close to new hires the current pension plan, into which the city is hemorrhaging money, and join a more sound statewide plan; yet a first reading of an ordinance to do so is not scheduled until Sept. 26. That one is a no-brainer.
Closing the current plan still leaves the city in need of an initial additional $2.5 million per year. Parkersburg Mayor Tom Joyce and Finance Director Eric Jiles presented to Councilman and Finance Committee Chairman John Reed, and Councilmen Zach Stanley and Bob Mercer four options for getting that kind of money. (Councilwoman Sharon Kuhl and Councilman Mike Reynolds were absent). A breakdown of those options is available in our story in Thursday’s newspaper.
Predictably, the option that involved cutting city spending was painted as a danger to public safety and the most apocalyptic of options, as the folks in City Hall have learned a few tricks from those in Charleston who are experts in making sure bureaucracy preserves itself.
So Reed, Stanley and Mercer chose to recommend a new tax, instead. Jiles explained to them that a 0.5 percent dedicated sales tax increase would generate the $2.5 million needed — money which Jiles made very clear “cannot, under any circumstances, be used for anything else. When the plans become fully funded, the tax would have to go away.” The Finance Committee, not fully listening to Jiles, voted instead to recommend a 1 percent increase because, as Reed put it, “At the 1 percent level you would free up $2.5 million” in general fund money.
That recommendation encourages playing a shell game with taxpayers’ money that should not be tolerated. It also raises the sales tax in Parkersburg higher than any other community in the region, which might very well wind up costing the city –and local businesses — more money than it makes.
There is no disputing something must be done to fully fund pensions for the police officers and firefighters who put themselves in harm’s way for the rest of us every day. But once City Council votes to close the current plan and join the new, better one, it must reject the recommendation of the Finance Committee and tell the full committee to take another look at both the options presented by Joyce and Jiles and any other options, or combination of options, that may have been overlooked. Taxpayers — voters — are watching.