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Changes proposed for controversial tax bill

February 04, 1999|By BRYN MICKLE

MARTINSBURG, W.Va. - A proposed change to a controversial tax bill in the West Virginia Legislature could spare the Eastern Panhandle from losing hundreds of thousands of dollars in revenue.

Under the bill's current status the Berkeley County school system could lose $400,000 each year while the Berkeley County Commission would lose as much as $95,000 from its yearly budget, said Berkeley County assessor Mearle Spickler. The City of Martinsburg could lose almost $12,000 from its yearly budget, he said.

"As you can see it's not very good," said Spickler.

Spickler's concerns center on a Senate bill that would reduce the amount of taxes developers must pay on building lots.

Under the current law a lot is taxed at a class three commercial rate as soon as a developer divides the land into building lots and makes required improvements such as roads and water and sewer service. The class three rate is twice as much as the class two rate.

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The new law, however, would not require developers to pay the higher tax rates until after the lot is sold.

The bill has been called "developer's welfare" by Del. Dale Manuel, D-Jefferson and some Berkeley and Jefferson officials fear it will take a big chunk out of local government budgets.

West Virginia Sen. John Unger, D-Berkeley, has suggested an amendment to the bill he said should allay many of those fears.

The revised bill would not make any retroactive changes to property and would exclude land that has already been subdivided, said Unger.

"We're trying to prevent taking existing revenues away from counties," said Unger.

The bill's sponsor, Sen. Oshel Craigo, D-Putnam, has agreed to the amendment and is scheduled to meet with Unger and several Eastern Panhandle representatives on the matter Monday, said Unger.

Unger said the bill has been the most talked-about piece of legislation this year amid fears that counties would be forced to raise taxes in other areas to cover the budget losses created by the development tax cut.

Berkeley County Commissioner Robert L. Burkhart said he opposed the bill in its current form but has suggested a compromise that would give developers a maximum of two years to sell lots before the higher tax is imposed.

One of Burkhart's fellow County Commissioners said he thinks the bill will benefit the Berkeley County in the long run by relaxing tax burdens on developers.

"This is a developer's bill, " said John Wright. "It helps development rather than hinders it."

While the county will lose tax revenues on the undeveloped lots it will recoup those losses when new houses are built on those properties, said Wright.

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