Clarksburg city budget due soon
by Paul Leakan

    Shrinking revenues and increasing needs have led to a marathon round of discussions about Clarksburg's proposed $8.3 million budget. For city officials, it's nearing the final lap. Clarksburg City Council must have the budget signed, sealed and delivered to Charleston by March 28.
    Perhaps the tallest hurdle will be responding to the Clarksburg police union's request for a 12-percent pay raise for city police officers.
    Local 119 of the Chapter of the International Union of Police Associations has lobbied for council to hold off on passing the budget until a pay raise is included for city police officers.
    The city has said there would have to be major cuts in the budget to be able to afford a 12-percent pay raise. In addition, the city traditionally doles out pay raises across the board. The issue may boil down to the city's shrinking pool of revenue.
    The city's revenues are spiraling downward because special construction projects, such as the federal building and Fairmont State College, have begun to diminish. These types of projects, which bring in business and occupation taxes from construction companies during the building process, are projected to decrease by more than $270,000 from 1999 to the year 2000. In addition, no additional service fees or property taxes are included in the budget.
    Because the budget is dependent on revenues, those two factors mean less money to fund pay raises for employees and pension costs, said City Manager Percy Ashcraft.
    Council has said it would consider giving a cost-of-living increase to employees if any carry-over revenues exist from the current fiscal year.  While that has yet to be determined, the city can only plan its budget with what it has now, said Ashcraft.
"I strongly believe that our employees deserve a raise," he said. "As administrators, we can only make recommendations based on what revenues there are to appropriate."
    Ashcraft said the revenue estimates in the budget are not liberal or conservative- they're realistic. "If we would expand revenue estimates, we would be shooting at targets that don't exist." The city is seeking ways to cut expenditures in the future, Ashcraft said.
    The city has recommended tightening spending habits in all city departments. Frank Ferrari, the director of finance, will oversee and justify all expenditures and see if they can be deferred to a later date.
    The city will also continue to broaden the vendor pool, a plan to get several cities to purchase products together in bulk, and shop for the best price for equipment and supplies. And the city wants to get tougher on collecting fees and taxes in a more timely manner.
    In addition, employee training has been frozen for the remainder of the fiscal year. And perhaps the most controversial recommendation- the city wants department heads to review overtime practices for employees.
    The proposed budget calls for a 15 percent reduction in employee overtime. The proposed overtime budget is $33,450 less than last year.
    Ashcraft points out that Clarksburg police officers, even those who work for only one hour over their regular time, receive a minimum of four hours of overtime.
    But Robert Matheny, president of the police union, says this information is misleading. "The procedure for overtime for the entire city, not just the police department, is that employees get paid hour-for-hour by rate of time and a half," he said. "If an employee is called back to the job after their normal tour of duty in the police department that would be for a situation such as reporting to court or working a major crime scene that employee would get a minimum of four hours for working over."
    Matheny said the reason this plan was put into effect originally was because of the time element involved in getting an officer ready for duty. According to Matheny, even employees of the Department of Public Works who had to come out this past weekend to shovel snow were getting four hours time for being called out.
    In Bridgeport, however, officers are paid hour-for-hour with no minimum. The same agreement exists with the Harrison County Sheriff's Department and the West Virginia State Police. "This is something that sticks out," Ashcraft said. "I don't think it will change anytime soon."
    John Fuscaldo, vice president of the police union, said police overtime is essential in order to cover festivals, parades, court, investigations and sickness, he said. "It's like putting a gun in your mouth and pulling a trigger if you do cut overtime."
The Clarksburg Fire Depart-ment also disagrees with the city's recommendations to cut overtime. "It's essential that we have the minimum staffing that we have now," said Capt. Rick Scott.
    If a policy is put into place not to cover shifts when an employee calls in sick, it would drop the department's minimum staffing level to 10 or less per shift, Scott said.
    The department currently operates on a minimum staffing level of 11 people on each shift. And at that level, the department just meets the National Fire Protection Association's recommended safety practices level for fighting an interior home fire, Scott said. The overtime practices simply must be maintained, he said. "We're not asking for anything out of the ordinary," he said.
    Either way, time is running short. And council will have to decide what, if anything, to choose to trim from the budget.
"At some point, they're going to have to decide what they want to give up," Ashcraft said.

Legislators say they accomplished their mission
by Troy Graham

    The last night of the Legislature had some of the controversy and rancor the public has come to expect, but legislative leaders said Saturday night the session was largely a productive one that accomplished most of the major initiatives laid out several months ago.
    House Speaker Bob Kiss and Senate President Earl Ray Tomblin both pointed out that a reformed workers' compensation law was passed, as well as the Greenbrier gambling bill, mountaintop removal legislation and four bills that will hopefully settle the growing deficit in the Public Employees Insurance Agency. "It was a pretty successful session," said Tomblin, D-Logan.
    The only major initiative that failed was a comprehensive overhaul of the family law master system and divorce and child custody laws. Delegate Arley Johnson, who chaired a subcommittee that drafted the bills, declared them dead shortly after 8 p.m., Saturday, blaming Senate Majority Leader Truman Chafin for their demise.
    However, the Legislature did manage to pass just before midnight several provisions designed to force divorcing parents to cooperate on child custody matters, ensuring adequate involvement of both parents in their children's lives.
    Under the bill, parents would be required to undergo mediation and take classes on the impact of divorce on their children before going to court. A companion bill that would have overhauled the family law master system died, however.
Kiss and Tomblin both said they were sorry to see the entire reform package die due to bickering between the House and Senate. "I'm really disappointed that we didn't pass it," Tomblin said. "Tempers got a little bit heated tonight."
    It is possible that Gov. Cecil Underwood will ask lawmakers to consider the divorce reforms again in a special session. Kiss, however, was skeptical of taking that route. "If we couldn't do it in 60 days, we couldn't do it in a week," he said. Both leaders were pleased with the bills passed to help reduce a growing deficit in PEIA, which now stands at $49 million.
    Three bills were passed that set up funds for the agency, which provides health insurance to teachers and public employees. One of those bills would place the first $5 million the state receives from the national tobacco settlement into a PEIA fund.
    A fourth bill was loudly applauded by teachers' lobbyists. That bill would increase the PEIA Finance Board from five members to seven.
     One of the new members has to be a union representative, most likely from the state Federation of Teachers.
The bill also forces the board to come up with a five-year financial plan for the agency. Public employee unions had asked for more representation on the board as that plan is devised.
    Legislative leaders also said the session was less heated than others. Kiss, D-Raleigh, said the "vitriol" was worse, especially between Johnson and Chafin. But, overall, lawmakers got along well this year, he said.
    The leaders were also pleased with the amount of issues that were addressed, although a situation like the snag with the divorce bills is usually certain to arise. "It's like any other session," Tomblin said. "A few bills are bound to fall through the cracks at the last minute."

Winter socks it to area again
From Staff Reports

    Another March snowstorm roared into North Central West  Virginia Sunday, causing dozens of wrecks and postponing many activities.
    The National Weather Service reported a line of heavy storms dumped up to nine inches of  snow in Harrison and surrounding counties with as much as 12 inches falling in Morgantown. Preston County and Garrett County (Md.) expected as much as 18 inches.
    The storm, which ended late Sunday night, left roads treacherous and crews are expected to be busy today trying to clear main and secondary roads. School has been postponed in 10 area counties and at several area colleges.
Dozens of wrecks occurred Sunday, although no serious injuries were reported.
    A portion of Interstate 79 South near Jane Lew was clogged when several tractor trailers were unable to maneuver in the snow, according to a State Police dispatcher. There were few details available because all officers were busy handling other accidents.
    "We got guys everywhere," she said. "If someone else has an accident, we don't have anyone else to send. It's that crazy."
The Harrison County Emergency Services Bureau also had many calls of fender benders, but no injuries were reported, the dispatcher said. The storm forced some area stores to close early and postponed other activities. Some, however, braved the weather and slushy roads.
    A few dozen dog owners attended the Greater Clarksburg Kennel Club Purebred Dog Review at the National Guard Armory in Salem. Dog owners came from as far as Weston and Pennsboro. Show officials said attendance was down, but it was still a good turnout considering weather conditions.

Staff writers Torie Knight, Troy Graham, Kevin Courtney and John G. Miller contributed to this report.


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