January 17, 2022 Parkersburg council approves deal to sell bridge to United Bridge Partners
Originally Published on January 01, 2022
PARKERSBURG — The City of Parkersburg reached a deal to sell the Memorial Bridge, bolstered the Police Department ranks and passed legislation prohibiting the establishment of any residential substance abuse treatment facilities for a year, while continuing to navigate the COVID-19 pandemic.
Mayor Tom Joyce said the local economy is “pretty healthy” overall, but noted the pandemic is still affecting the downtown area particularly. Two of the area’s largest employers, the Bureau of the Fiscal Service and Highmark West Virginia, continue to have many employees work from home, reducing the population of potential customers downtown.
City Council extended a provision through June 30, 2022, that exempts the first $500 in business and occupation tax owed by restaurants and retail establishments, service businesses and those renting or leasing real property. Initiated in June 2020 in response to the economic challenges of the pandemic, it has saved filers an average of $185,000 a quarter, Finance Director Eric Jiles said in September.
“I think it’s provided some relief to particularly the smallest business operations,” Joyce said. “I’m hoping that’s something we can continue and perhaps even make permanent.”
Council allocated $7 million of the city’s nearly $22 million in American Rescue Plan funding to the Parkersburg Utility Board for planned water system improvements, reducing the amount of a planned rate hike. There was also $200,000 provided as part of a local match for state funding to extend water and sewer infrastructure to the top of Fort Boreman Hill for anticipated development there. Another $321,779 was approved to provide one-time premium pay to employees.
The Police Department, which has struggled with recruitment and retention in recent years, added 12 officers in 2021, though not all have been to the West Virginia State Police Academy.
“It’s been some time since we’ve had that many in a calendar year,” Joyce said. “We’ve done that without changing our standards.”
The department now has 67 officers and is budgeted for 74.
Council and the administration in recent years have made efforts to increase police pay to be more competitive. In September, an ordinance was approved providing an extra 50 cents an hour to officers when they reach 10, 15 and 20 years of service, in hopes of enticing experienced officers to stay longer.
One of the most recent retirements was of Joe Martin, the department’s longest-serving chief. Scott Elliott is the interim chief while a search is conducted for a replacement.
The department also added two civilian homeless coordinators to focus on interactions with homeless individuals, referring them for social and housing services and, when necessary, substance abuse treatment. They also deal with cases involving homeless individuals as they make their way through the court system, freeing up officers for other duties.
“I think those two employees have been very impactful in a positive manner,” Joyce said.
Wood County has seen tremendous growth in the number of residential substance abuse treatment beds, going from 30 in 2017 to 283 this year, all but 80 of them within the Parkersburg city limits. That doesn’t include non-medical facilities like Recovery Point or sober-living facilities.
Council in July approved a moratorium on the opening of any new residential treatment facilities through June 30, 2022, a move that drew opposition from some who said it would not stand up to legal scrutiny, and interest from other communities, including Vienna, which passed a similar ordinance. Joyce testified about the measure before the West Virginia Legislature’s Joint Committee on Health
“We certainly have heightened awareness with regard to these types of facilities and the impact they can have on our communities,” Joyce said.
City officials are optimistic the Legislature will take action to address the issue in its upcoming session, including once again requiring a certificate of need from the state Health Care Authority before such facilities can open.
Three years ago, council voted to begin considering the divestiture of the Memorial Bridge, with Joyce saying that while the span was safe and usable, the city would never be in a financial position to tear it down and replace it. In May, council approved a deal to sell the toll bridge to United Bridge Partners, a Colorado-based company that established a local entity to own and operate the bridge.
“We’re moving through that process,” Joyce said. “I look forward to completing that sale, hopefully in relatively short order.”
Some initial work is under way to prepare the bridge for a $50 million rehabilitation. The projected completion date is October 2023, after which the bridge will move to an electronic toll system and rates will increase to at least $1 for a single trip.
The city will receive $4 million for the bridge and gain access to about $15 million previously allocated for the structure’s operations, maintenance and demolition.
The Public Works Department did 268 in-house projects in 2021, such as pothole repairs, compared to 109 in 2020, Joyce said. The average turnaround time, from notification to completion, decreased from 59 days to 42.
Thirty-one contracted projects, such as stormwater system repairs and joint sealing at the floodwall, totaling $5.3 million were completed in the calendar year, the mayor said.
Click here for more information on the Liberty Bridge project.