Taxes and the cost of municipal government have been hot topics in Wheeling during the past few weeks. But the most critical issue facing city taxpayers stayed in the background until last week.
Cuts in spending have been suggested by City Manager Robert Herron. But some council members do not favor one of his key recommendations, reducing the size of the police department. Instead, it has been said, the city could raise more money by establishing a user tax. People who work inside city limits, regardless of where they live, would pay it.
Wheeling residents and businesses already pay plenty for day-to-day municipal operations. Saddling the public with a new tax instead of "right-sizing" city government, as Mayor Andy McKenzie puts it, is not a good idea.
But during a speech to the Wheeling Kiwanis Club, Vice Mayor Eugene Fahey said both spending cuts and a new tax may be necessary.
More revenue is needed to deal with shortfalls in money available to pay retirement benefits to former city firefighters and police officers, Fahey noted.
He is correct in his concern. To make up for the unfunded liabilities, city government will have to pay ever-increasing amounts for several years to come. This year's mandated payments for police and fire department pensions total $3,841,550.
But just three years from now, the annual payments will go up to $4,706,064. In eight years they skyrocket to $6.6 million.
Fahey's idea on earmarking proceeds from a user tax to handle the pension fund shortfalls may or may not be a good one. Clearly, however, the retirement benefits programs are a severe drain on city finances - and something needs to be done to address that.