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Charleston City Council OKs $87.3 million budget

CHARLESTON, W.Va. -- In a brief meeting Thursday evening, Charleston City Council members approved the city's proposed $87.3 million city budget for the 2013-14 fiscal year, which begins July 1.

Passage of the measure closes a relatively quiet budget-making season, with no disputes over pay raises, no protests from firefighters and no questions about contributions to community groups.

However, during roll call of the budget's passage, City Councilman Cubert Smith voted to abstain and that sparked a heated exchange with Mayor Danny Jones.

"What's your conflict? You have to have a conflict to abstain," Jones said. "We don't come here to just not vote."

Following the meeting, Smith, a noted artist and teacher, said he disagreed with the council's budgeted plan to hire a public art director because he said the position lacked required qualifications and details beyond a recommended salary.

Jones refused to let Smith abstain and ruled him out of order. Jones asked that it be put on record that Smith refused to vote.

"Put it in the record that he doesn't vote for me," Smith said. "I vote for myself."

City Council President Tom Lane later talked to Smith and reporters about the public arts director position. Lane said council members set aside $60,000 to hire a public arts director in the future. That person would be paid anywhere between $47,000 and $60,000, Lane said. The position was created in response to a 2011 report from the National Endowment for the Arts that said Charleston needs a professional to oversee and build its collection of public art.

Lane said the position's details and the person who would be hired would be hashed out later. Smith said he does not want the job.

Budget details

In this year's budget, the city's 760-plus employees won't be getting raises this year. They received special 3 percent across-the-board pay hikes last October to break a several-year salary freeze (not counting seniority raises).

The new budget does not reflect Mayor Jones' proposal to add a 0.5 percent retail sales tax. The city cannot impose a sales tax without permission from the state Municipal Home Rule Board.

But the sales tax plan is still in the works, City Manager David Molgaard has said. City Council plans to hold a public hearing on the issue April 1.

As Jones said when he introduced the plan last month, the sales tax revenues -- an estimated $3.6 million a year -- would go toward improvements to the city's aging Civic Center. But several steps still lie ahead:

* Approval by the home rule board.

* Extension by the Legislature of the five-year home rule pilot program, which is set to expire this year.

* Passage by City Council of a bill to impose the sales tax.

If all that happens, the city also would lower its existing business and occupation tax rate on retail businesses from 0.5 percent to 0.35 percent and eliminate the B&O tax on manufacturing.

The new budget is up 3.7 percent, or $3.15 million, over the current year's budget -- thanks mostly to projections of continuing robust B&O tax receipts and an expected increase of almost $1 million in the city's hotel-motel taxes.

In 20 years, the city's budget has more than doubled. It's risen 129 percent from the 1993-94 budget of $34 million and gone up 55 percent over the 2003-04 budget of $56 million.

Most of this year's increases will go toward health-care costs, which skyrocketed last year after several years of unusually low claims. To be safe, Molgaard wanted to set aside extra money -- $2.1 million worth -- in the city's self-insured health-care fund.

Contributions to the city's woefully under-funded police and fire retirement plans also go up again next year, and will take a $10 million bite out of the budget.

Contributions to outside groups will stay the same and, in a couple of high-profile cases, even increase next year.

The city will give $925,626 to the Kanawha County Public Library, up from $891,000, under a formula based on property tax receipts.

And at Jones' recommendation, the city will give an extra $25,000 to the Kanawha-Charleston Health Department ($125,000) and an extra $1,250 ($15,000) to Multifest, after reassurances that a new board would prevent further problems with the annual festival. The group's longtime treasurer admitted earlier this year to embezzling more than $300,000 from the event.

Staff writer Travis Crum contributed. Reach Jim Balow at balow@wvgazette.com or call 304-348-5102.


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