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Mayor offers new Charleston election plan

By Jim Balow

CHARLESTON, W.Va. -- Charleston should move its city elections to even-numbered nonpresidential years, Mayor Danny Jones said, but keep its current system of party primaries followed by a general election.

The transition to the new format would involve two steps, Jones told City Council members Tuesday evening. Elections in 2015 would be moved to Saturdays, to avoid problems with holding them during school hours, he said.

Everyone elected in 2015 would serve 31/2-year terms instead of the usual 4-year terms. The next city elections would be held in 2018, piggybacking on the regular state/county elections in May and November of that year.

Jones has been pushing for changes in city elections since early this year, in part to save the roughly $200,000 it costs for each election. He suggested the city go nonpartisan -- eliminating parties -- as Beckley and other cities have done, and he appointed a task force of nine council members to study the issue.

The task force finished its work last month by recommending, on a 7-2 vote, to go nonpartisan and change the election dates. Any changes in election procedures require changing the city charter.

Jones said he came up with the new plan because not enough council members supported the nonpartisan plan. The task force said it would take a two-thirds vote of the council, plus approval of city voters in a special election, to change the city charter.    

Under the new plan, "If we could do a charter change, we would not have to take it to the public," Jones said. "If we all approve and there's no dissension, we can do it on the floor of [the] council."

Later, Jones said there must be unanimous approval to change the charter on the council floor. "If there's any objection -- that means any objection, any voter -- then we'll have to have a special election and it will cost us $200,000."

Councilman Ed Talkington thanked Jones for coming up with the plan. "My understanding is this will pass [the] council without problem."

Jones said the council's majority leader will draft a bill to start the process later this year. "We'll do it this winter. We've got time," he said. "It's a good way for the city to save a lot of money."

Earlier Tuesday at the council's Finance Committee meeting, City Manager David Molgaard gave a long PowerPoint presentation about Fire Department overtime, following findings by consultants that the department earns far more overtime each year -- about $1.4 million -- than those in other comparably sized cities.

State and federal laws have different rules for overtime, Molgaard said, so the city ends up paying far more overtime to firefighters than would be required by the Fair Labor Standards Act.

One unidentified fire captain qualified for 336 hours of overtime last year out of the 2,272 he worked, Molgaard said, earning more than $10,000 extra -- about $4,000 more than required by FLSA rules.

"This is just one individual. I don't know if that's typical. I don't know whether we can get $4,000 of savings, or $6,000." Molgaard said. But department-wide, he said, the city might be able to save $500,000 a year.   

Also Tuesday, council members approved the issuing of up to $30 million of revenue bonds to pay for sewer-line improvements along Kanawha Two-Mile and Sugar Creek.

The bonds will be issued by the state Infrastructure Jobs Development Council and paid over the next 20 years by sewer customers.

"There will not be a rate increase attributable to this project," Charleston Sanitary Board General Manager Larry Roller said. "This was part of the 2008 rate increase. This was anticipated, along with a number of other projects."

The project includes replacing or fixing about 20 miles of sanitary sewer pipe and replacing service lines. A lot of the old sewer lies in the creek bed, Roller said, a common practice years ago.

Bids for the work are scheduled to be opened Oct. 5, he said. "We want to start construction this year -- November or December -- and finish next year.

Since the 2008 rate increase, the sanitary board has been tackling improvements across its sewer collection system on a pay-as-you-go basis, Roller said. Board members approved $7 million of work last year and has another $3.8 million scheduled this year.

"We're just finishing Twilight Drive and the pumping station at Virginia Street, and we're wrapping up the 27th Street pumping station. We're going as fast as we can," Roller said.

"It's all part of our long-term plan with the [state Department of Environmental Protection]. We've got a 15-year plan to keep the environment clean and keep customers happy. This is the biggest project left to do in our plan."

Reach Jim Balow at balow@wvgazette.com or 304-348-5102.


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