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W. Virginia's decision: Just what's essential?

March 05, 2001

W. Virginia's decision: Just what's essential?



The State of West Virginia's budget woes are no secret to anyone who reads a newspaper. Falling revenue estimates, a budget balanced last year with tobacco-settement money and a proposal for statewide legalization of video-poker machines are all symptoms of a state government starved for cash.

Now it appears the revenue famine is spreading to the state's cities and may force citizens to rethink what municipal services are truly necessary.

Reports this week indicate that two of the state's largest cities, Charleston and Huntington, are facing financial problems. Charleston and Huntington face deficits of $1.3 million and $700,00 respectively, with Charleston officials proposing layoffs of police officers and the shutdown of some fire stations to close the budget gap.

In Huntington, officials who had counted on a user fee to raise $1 million had their hopes dashed when a judge declared it unconstitutional.

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So what does all of this mean for the Eastern Panhandle. In yesterday's Herald-Mail, reporter Dave McMillion quoted city managers in Ranson and Martinsburg as saying that finances haven't yet been a problem there, probably because their operations are relatively small.

But they noted that prices for liability insurance, workers' compensation coverage and employee payrolls are rising faster than the revenues that pay for them. Martinsburg compensated by increasing garbage-collection fees and its business-and-occupation tax.

How long such measures will cover costs is anyone's guess, with Dave Mills, city manager of Ranson, saying that the crunch will probably hit there in two or three years.

One possibility would be home rule, a form of government with more taxing powers, but which is not now legal in West Virginia and opposed by Gov. Bob Wise, who favors helping local governments by redistributing money from video-poker machines.

As Ranson's manager says, there is a some time to think about solutions. We suggest citizens use that time to think about what government services they feel are essential. Once citizens have decided what government must do for them, then it will be easier to figure out how to pay the bill.

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