WSS City Council votes down building purchase during contentious meeting

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Welcome to WSS (Photo by Sara Swann)By Sarah Mansheim

In a split-decision vote, the White Sulphur Springs City Council voted to not move forward with the purchase of a building to house city hall, the police department and the maintenance department.

The Monday night meeting was held before a large, vocal crowd at the existing downtown city hall building, with Mayor Lloyd Haynes and Councilperson G.P. Parker absent from the meeting. City Recorder Peggy Bland ran the meeting from the mayor’s seat, and city hall employee Linda Coleman manned Bland’s position for the evening.

Council had begun discussing the purchase of the building, commonly known as the Bowling Building, located at the Rt.60/92 junction in White Sulphur, during an executive session at the Feb. 8 council meeting. Since then, rumors have swirled about the Spa City, and Monday night, the council chamber was full of angry citizens who protested the city spending money on a building and moving city hall out of the downtown area.

Discussion of the purchase of the potential municipal center dominated Monday’s meeting, with several community members speaking out against the move. Audience member Marie Lewis accused council of violating Sunshine Laws by discussing the possible purchase during executive session instead of during the open council meeting. Lewis also accused council of going against the will of the city building commission, who, she said, voted the idea down in their last meeting. Lewis then went on to demand that each council member tell her whether or not they were in favor of the purchase and why.

Visibly unsettled by the Sunshine Law violation accusation, Councilperson Audrey VanBuren told Lewis that it is legal for governmental bodies to discuss potential property purchases while in executive session, so long as they don’t take a vote, which, she said, they didn’t.

After some discussion, council demurred from making a final decision on what the will of the building commission was on the issue, stating that recordings from the meeting would need to be reviewed and commission members would need to clarify to council what they had decided.

Explaining why he thought the city should purchase the Bowling Building, Councilperson Mark Gillespie told the room that the city needs new facilities due to electrical problems with the city hall building, and that the police department and maintenance workers need a place to store equipment and vehicles, and that the police need more room in order to secure evidence and conduct interviews.

“We’re investing in new equipment – a new garbage truck, a new Bobcat – I’m not leaving them out in the weather,” Gillespie said.

VanBuren echoed Gillespie’s sentiment, stating that not only are the harsh winter conditions hard on equipment, they’re hard on the workers as well. Workers often lie on the freezing ground to attach chains to truck tires. Further, she said, purchasing a building to house the maintenance trucks indoors would mean the city could hire an in-house mechanic, a move that would cost the city less money than contracting out repairs to outside parties.

When audience member Linda Wakeford asked why the city said there was no money to clean up dilapidated buildings, but there was enough money to purchase and renovate an $800,000 building, VanBuren stated simply, to much uproar, “It’s in the budget.”

Gillespie made the motion to request a written proposal for the lease or purchase of the Bowling Building, which would include the total cost of purchasing and renovating the building. Gillespie and VanBuren voted in favor of the motion, and Council members Ted Humphries and Larry Wakeford voted against the motion. Bland voted against, to break the tie.

In other business:

Council passed the first reading of a bond ordinance to extend and improve the city sewer system. According to bond counsel Samme Gee, the Department of Environmental Protection has ordered the removal of phosphorous emissions from the existing sewer system.

Gee said the project will cost “just under” $3 million, and that a million-dollar grant will offset the expense. However, she advised, the deadline for that grant funding is in October, so the project must be underway by then.

The second reading and public hearing on the bond issue will be held at next month’s regular council meeting.

Also, Gillespie told citizens that the municipal pool will not open again this summer. This will be the third year the city has been without a public pool, which closed after the 2013 summer season due to massive leaks. Gillespie said that the city is trying to work out an agreement with the Harts Run pool to accommodate White Sulphur’s swimmers.