CHARLESTON, W.Va. — The next Charleston mayor will likely start his or her term in the New Year with a budget hole projected at $4 million at least.

Facing that, none of the three candidates — Independent Andy Backus, Democrat Amy Goodwin, Republican J.B. Akers — are backing any kind of plan to immediately eliminate the $3 a week city user fee ahead of the Nov. 6 general election.

“I think we need to be able to support ourselves without that fee,” said Backus, an adult education instructor.

Goodwin agreed.

“I’d love to get rid of the user fee, but it’s $7 million and change on the current budget,” she said. “We have to find a way to eliminate that over time. Can it happen initially? No, it can’t. Eventually? It should.”

Philosophically, Akers said he does not like many taxes at all.

“But you can’t make promises, I don’t think, as a responsible candidate to cut taxes unless you can guarantee people you’re going to have a different way to pay for that source of revenue,” he said.

On Tuesday, both Akers and Goodwin will participate in a debate at the Charleston Coliseum and Convention Center put on by AARP West Virginia, the Charleston Area Alliance, Charleston Main Streets, the Charleston Gazette-Mail and WCHS-TV.

It starts at 6:30 p.m. in the Center’s Little Theater.

Backus was not invited to participate. Organizers said that decision was based on poll numbers that put him at less than ten percent in an early September telephone survey Orion Strategies conducted.

Akers, who owns the Akers Law Offices, has also served as Charleston’s city clerk since 2015.

The city clerk is the charter officer of city government, serves as the ex officio administrator for all City Council meetings and maintains all official city documents, including election filings and financial records.

At the start of 2018, the user fee that people working in Charleston pay was raised from $2.50 to $3 and, at that rate, generates $7.8 million each year.

The user fee pays for police officers, law enforcement equipment and street maintenance.

In Fall 2017, members of Charleston’s City Council approved a proposal to move up implementation of the hike that had originally been scheduled to take effect in 2020 by two years to pay for ten new police officers.

“The thing that politicians like to do in an election is make big promises about how they’re going to lower your taxes or give you better services,” Akers said.

“Well in this situation, if we’re going to lower your taxes by getting rid of the user fee, then we’re going to have to cut your services somehow and I can you tell, when I go to community meetings, every neighborhood wants more police.”

Overall, Goodwin, a former state tourism commissioner, said Charleston has been spending too much money.

“When (former Mayor) Jay Goldman left office, the city budget was about $60 million. It’s about $100 million now. We have fewer people and we have more taxes,” she said.

If elected, Goodwin said her policy decisions will come down to two questions: (1) Will this action create one new job? (2) Will this action bring a job back to Charleston?

“If it answers ‘yes’ to both of those questions then, yes, it’s good policy. If it doesn’t, then it needs to be re-evaluated. On that measure, the user fee does not,” Goodwin said.

In Backus’ view, Charleston needs more taxpayers, not more taxes.

“I think when people start coming back and businesses start coming in and the revenue turns around for the City of Charleston, I think we need to start to phase that (user fee) out,” Backus said. “Cities that are prospering aren’t beholden to user fees.”

Akers said he’s not opposed to possibly one day eliminating the user fee if replacement funds can eventually be identified.

In terms of revenues, “I really do think that we’re going to see a turnaround, but I don’t promise things that I can’t currently deliver,” he said.

When it was first implemented in 2004, Charleston’s user fee was $1 per week. It went up to $2 per week in 2008.

Other cities with user fees in West Virginia include Weirton, Parkersburg, Morgantown and Huntington.

580-WCHS, a MetroNews affiliate, will have more with the candidates for mayor in Charleston on a number of issues, including their priorities, each Monday leading up to Election Day on Tuesday, Nov. 6.

Early voting begins on Oct. 24.

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