Chamber calls B&O ‘a bad tax’

WEIRTON – The Weirton Area Chamber of Commerce hosted a member meeting and press conference Thursday at the Holiday Inn on Three Springs Drive to address the city’s proposed business and occupation tax.

“It’s a bad tax, in our opinion. It closes businesses, does away with jobs and prevents new businesses from coming in. This isn’t the first time we’ve fought this battle, but at least this time we thought there were new solutions to bring to the table,” said Brenda Mull, chamber president.

City Council voted 3 to 2, with one abstention, to approve an ordinance to amend the B and O tax in accordance with a budget scenario proposed by Ward 6 Councilman David Dalrymple at a special meeting June 13. It will require one more reading to become law. That is expected to happen during a meeting scheduled for 6:30 p.m. July 1.

The vote came after nearly six months of budget workshops and committee meetings aimed at resolving a projected $1.6 million shortfall in the 2015-2016 fiscal year using a variety of combinations of the B and O, the cable franchise fee, a potential sales tax and adjustments to the municipal service fee and police and fire service fees. The 2014-2015 fiscal year begins July 1.

Dalrymple, Ward 2 Councilman Chuck Wright and Ward 4 Councilman George Ash, Sr. voted “yes,” while Ward 3 Councilman Fred Marsh and Ward 7 Councilman Terry Weigel voted “no.” Ward 5 Councilman George Gaughenbaugh abstained.

When asked why he abstained after the meeting, Gaughenbaugh was only willing to say that there was a “conflict of interest.” He would not elaborate.

“There seems to be a misconception that we are at odds with the city. We are not,” Mull said. “We value the services that the city offers and the people who provide them. We differ on how these services should be paid for. A B and O tax is not the way to go. We don’t want this to become a personal issue. We just want them to look at other options.”

Vince Azzarello, chair of the government affairs committee for the Chamber and former city manager, said a better option would be to pursue a sales tax if the city is accepted for home rule status.

“Thirty to 40 years of lobbying has led to home rule as an option that potentially has the opportunity for a sales tax. We’re now sitting here with a potential option in front of us, and now is when we are considering the B and O tax? It just doesn’t make any sense. We believe that the better option is to let this home rule play itself out and see if that option is available,” Azzarello said.

“There have been other options that have been supported by the chamber of commerce that include some additional fees as an alternative to trying to do the B and O tax, and those fees impact all of the constituencies in the community, not just the business community. The business community is willing to pay its fair share, but they want it to be their fair share.”

Rick Starck, owner and CEO of Ocean-Air International, said that the B and O would significantly impact his business’ bottom line.

“It will pretty much drive us out of this town, and I don’t want to see that happen,” Starck commented.

Barb Owens, general manager of the Fairfield Inn and Suites of Weirton, asked council to reconsider.

“I’ve already been informed by my management company that if this tax passes, I can do no more hiring. There will be no more increases in wages and there will be no more bonuses for employees. The lack of increases and the lack of bonuses will impact the city because those people will not be spending their money in the city of Weirton,” Owens stated.

Nick Latousakis, chamber board chairman and president of Wine and Beverage Merchants on Three Springs Drive, agreed with Azzarello that a sales tax is a favorable alternative.

“We are in favor of a municipal sales tax as opposed to the B and O tax,” he said. “We need to look at the development industry, and we need to be cognizant of what is happening now in Pennsylvania with the Findlay connector and what is happening by the airport. When that highway is completed down to Washington and Interstate 79, it will open up thousands of acres for development. The last thing we need is to chase industry and business out of our community to an area 15 miles away.”

Mull pointed out that one ward was not represented in the vote.

“We’d also like to ask council to take their time in this decision. We think it’s only fair that all wards be represented, and right now with Councilman (Ronnie) Jones resigning, there is no one to represent that ward or the people’s opinion in that ward,” she said.

Jones, First District representative in the House of Delegates, officially resigned from his post as Ward 1 councilman at the June 9 regular council meeting because of a residential move outside of his ward.

That left Ward 1 without representation in City Council’s vote at the special meeting June 13.

According to the city charter, City Council members have six weeks after Jones’ official resignation (June 10) to appoint a resident of Ward 1 to the position. If they do not fill the position in that time, then a special election will take place.

“Bottom line is that we are looking out for the well-being of this community. A B and O tax is just not a feasible option, in our opinion,” Latousakis said.

(Dalrymple can be contacted at sdalrymple@heraldstaronline.com)