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Sin tax on alcohol tossed about at Panhandle pow-wow

December 15, 2006|by MATTHEW UMSTEAD

MARTINSBURG, W.Va. - A "sin" tax on sales of beer, wine and liquor in West Virginia is one of several options being explored to help offset spiraling regional jail bills that Eastern Panhandle leaders said Thursday total more than $6 million each year for the tri-county region.

"There's no doubt it's a huge burden on the county's budget," Jefferson County Commissioner Dale Manuel said.

Jefferson County's annual bill for incarcerating people at Eastern Regional Jail in Martinsburg is more than $2 million. Manuel said he and fellow commissioners on Thursday voted to pay an $88,000 bill.

"It stuck out like a sore thumb," Manuel said.

Berkeley County's yearly bill is about $3.5 million, and Morgan County's expenses recently doubled to about $500,000, Manuel's counterparts told Vivian Parsons, executive director of the County Commission Association of West Virginia. Parsons and area lawmakers met Thursday in Martinsburg to discuss initiatives for the 2007 regular session of the State Legislature.

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As one of two county commissioners appointed to the state Regional Jail and Correctional Facility Authority board, Morgan County Commission President Glen R. Stotler said county leaders now often find themselves trying to keep their heads above water because of the cost and have little power to raise additional revenue.

"Let's all just stop paying our regional jail bills if that's what it's going to take," Stotler said.

Stotler suggested that counties should be allowed to retain a portion of the tax money that county clerks collect for real estate transfers and send to state coffers to offset their regional jail cost instead.

"I think it's a great idea, I would support it," said state Sen. John Yoder, R-Jefferson.

But Yoder doubted that it would be easy to convince the governor to let go of the money, which Berkeley County Commission President Howard L. Strauss said has amounted to $2 million a year from Berkeley County.

In addition to adding a "sin tax" on alcohol, other proposals discussed to reduce regional jail costs were:

· Empowering counties along West Virginia's borders with more restrictive laws to pass ordinances to close establishments that serve alcohol at earlier hours.

· Mandate that individuals arrested for DUI and other criminal charges pay for their incarceration.

· Implement cost-sharing with the state's municipalities, which now are not legally obligated to pay for regional jail expenses.

"We'd like to see the state and the cities jump in there," Parsons said.

Parsons noted that Cabell County officials determined that approximately 70 percent of the county's arrests were by Huntington, W.Va., and Marshall University police officers.

Cost sharing is "very much on the radar," she said.

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