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Morgantown City Counsel considers budget among coronavirus unpredictability

Stuck between the as-of-yet incalculable impact to city revenues due to COVID-19 closures and looming budget deadlines from the state, Morgantown City Council on Tuesday voted 4-3 to adopt a $39.7 million 2021 budget outgoing City Manager Paul Brake described as little more than “a placeholder.”

Members of council met remotely via teleconference in light of gathering restrictions put in place due to the ongoing viral pandemic. Audio issues made portions of the meeting largely unintelligible.

What came across loud and clear, however, was the warning from City Finance Director Jim Goff.

“It’s impossible at this point to really project what this is going to mean to our budget,” Goff said, explaining the city is looking at contingency plans contemplating the loss of revenue from WVU and nonessential businesses for 30, 60 and 90 days.

“This current quarter wraps up March 31, and this quarter I think we’re probably looking at a $400,000 to $600,000 reduction,” he said, adding that the city could see a reduction up to nearly half of the $9 million projection for the final quarter of the current fiscal year depending on the length of the closures.

“There are just a lot of variables,” Goff said, noting the city has already put a freeze on hiring, contracts and discretionary spending in anticipation of what’s to come.
As there’s a lag between collections and when tax revenue shows up in city coffers, the lost revenue will start showing up just prior to the July 1 start of the 2021 fiscal year.

Members of council expressed frustration that the state hasn’t relaxed deadlines to give cities time to contemplate what the efforts to slow COVID-19 will mean to their budgets.

“I just can’t believe the state is not allowing us to take the steps we need to take to give the budget a fair look before we submit it,” Deputy Mayor Rachel Fetty said. “I don’t even understand.”

While all were in agreement that these are extraordinary circumstances, some members of council expressed an overall frustration with the budget process in general.

Councilors Zack Cruze, Ron Dulaney and Barry Wendell voted against the spending plan.

“I would caution the idea that the reason we’re out of time on this budget is because of the COVID-19 crisis. This budget and its many questions was presented before we knew the COVID-19 crisis would shut down our city and state the way it has,” Cruze said.

Among the contentious points in the budget is the fact that it was originally presented with the recommendation from Brake to eliminate 12 grant funded firefighters. Prior to Tuesday’s adoption, a 10% increase in fire fees jumped to a 23% increase in order to at least delay the elimination of those positions.

The budget also includes revenue that will be generated by increasing the frequency of rental inspections from a three-year rotation to yearly.

Even so, both the increase in fire fees and inspections would require a future policy consideration by council in order to take effect.

And as Goff explained, the majority of this budget will end up being reworked.

“Honestly, it’s close to starting from square one,” Goff said. “I can’t tell you what council is going to do, but I think with the city manager leaving, I think this could go a lot of different ways at this point.”

Brake received a conditional offer to become the city manager of Royal Oak, Mich. last week. Council met in executive session prior to Tuesday’s meeting to discuss the city manager position.

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