Morgantown City Manager Paul Brake said the enabling ordinance behind the city’s weekly user fee is written in such a manner that it can be altered should council desire funds to support modes of transportation beyond city streets.

The user fee was a topic of conversation included in a larger budget discussion during council’s most recent regular session.

Brake went on to say that while the funds generated by the fee are sufficient now, that might not always be the case.

On October 20, 2015, Morgantown City Council voted 4-3 to implement a $3 weekly user fee — the Safe Streets and Safe Community Service Fee — providing the city about $4.5 million annually.

As explained during the fee’s passage and on the city’s website, the user fee was created to address “two goals” — increased funding for street resurfacing, maintenance and the city’s public works department, and increased police protection through additional hiring, better retention efforts and upgraded equipment for the Morgantown Police Department.

During the most recent council meeting, Deputy Mayor Mark Brazaitis asked if there was a possibility that a portion of the fee, he used 50 cents as an example, could be repurposed for the purchase and maintenance of green space to be used for alternate forms of transportation, like trails.

“Yes, the way that the ordinance that enabled that to begin with is broad enough to make that determination,” Brake answered, adding, “That is within the original authority that enables the collection of that fee. So the bottom line, to answer your question, yes.”

Looking at the ordinance, the first purpose listed for the fee is “The improvement and maintenance of public rights-of-way is an essential municipal service provided by the City which is necessary to ensure public health, safety and welfare.”

One of the phrases coming up during these discussions is “complete streets,” which is a design philosophy that posits a street (or right of way) should be designed and maintained as to enable access for users of all ages and abilities, regardless of their mode
of transportation.

By formally adopting the complete streets model — which city administration is working on, according to Brake — the rights-of-way described in the user fee ordinance and others would no longer be referring exclusively to infrastructure for motorized transportation, but pedestrians, cyclists, etc.

City leadership has already said it would like to focus user fee funds on sidewalks once the ambitious paving projects give way to less rigorous and costly maintenance. The city spent more than $2 million paving more than 12 miles of streets last summer. Another $1.8 million in paving
is planned for the com-
ing months.

Speaking to council in November, City Engineer Damien Davis noted, “There’s going to be a point where we’re going to have more money to pave than streets to pave.”

Davis attended a more recent council meeting to explain the city, through its pedestrian safety board, is working with the Monongalia Metropo-litan Planning Organization (MPO) on a comprehensive sidewalk plan.

Looking around the state, Morgantown has plenty of company when it comes to user fees — Charleston and Huntington are among a number of other cities to create similar sources of revenue.

Since implementing a
$1 weekly user fee in 2004 for anyone working inside city limits, Charleston has raised the charge three times. A 50-cent jump brought the fee to $3 earlier this year, according to media reports.

Huntington implemented a weekly user fee in 2003. In 2015, the weekly charge was bumped from $3 to $5.

Unlike Charleston and Huntington, Morgantown does not have a 1 per-
cent municipal sales tax
in place.

One of the questions raised locally and at the state level of late focuses on how equitable such blanket fees are to the payers.

On a handful of occasions councilors have either commented or shared correspondence from fee payers upset that everyone pays the same $3 to work in the city regardless of hours worked or income. Students working a handful of hours each week, to use a popular example, pay a much higher percentage of their pay than WVU President Gordon Gee, who pays the same $3.

City administration has explained it is not lawful to charge one user more
than another.

Further, legislation was recently unsuccessfully advanced in the state legislature that maintained charging a non-city resident a fee without allowing that payer to participate in city elections is essentially taxation without representation, raising questions about what actually differentiates a mandatory fee from a tax.

Given a number of police and public works hires, and subsequent raises, provided out of user fee funds, Councilor Ron Dulaney asked if the city could eventually get to a point where the fee revenue is no long-
er adequate.

“Are we in danger at some point of not having money for road work as a result of increasing costs associated with personnel and other things and a flatlining income from this source?” Dulaney asked.

Brake responded by saying he intends to present a five-year projection on the user fee, explaining an increase may be necessary down the line.

“We really need to pay attention that there is that adequate portion that continues to pay for road paving, resurfacing the streets. That commitment was made,” Brake said. “I think we’ll need to revisit that. Is the fee sufficient? At this point it appears that it is, but it may not be in
the future.”

The city’s proposed
2018-’19 budget includes $4.5 million in user fee funds. Along with $1.8 million in paving, $2.11 million will go into personnel for police ($1.53 million) and public works ($585,000). Another $900,000 will go
toward equipment for
those departments.

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