Land jail costs and streets lead local agenda in Legislature

December 29, 2006|by DAVE McMILLION

EASTERN PANHANDLE, W.VA. - Tighter controls on how cities can annex land, relief from high jail costs and funding to help extend Raleigh Street in Martinsburg to alleviate traffic congestion are among the issues local officials hope Eastern Panhandle lawmakers can tackle for them in the upcoming session of the Legislature.

The Legislature convenes Jan. 10 in Charleston, W.Va., and Gov. Joe Manchin will get things started that day with the annual State of the State address.


Jefferson County officials for some time have been concerned about state annexation laws that allow cities to use narrow pieces of land to reach larger tracts away from city boundaries.

Sometimes referred to as "shoestring" annexations, the practice can result in housing subdivisions being built next to farms, Jefferson County Commission President Greg Corliss said.


Then, conflicts can arise between farmers and homeowners over issues such as chemical use on the farms, complaints about farm animals or trespassing on the farms, Corliss said.

"It goes on and on," Corliss said.

It's an issue local officials have been trying to get solutions to in Charleston, but the same state annexation laws still exist, Corliss said.

Del. Bob Tabb, D-W.Va., said it's tough to tell whether any changes can be made to the state annexation laws, adding it is difficult to get lawmakers in other parts of the state to understand local issues.

State Sen. John Unger, D-W.Va., said he thinks annexation is an issue that needs to be worked out between counties and cities.

Unger said annexation issues only are part of the challenges facing the Eastern Panhandle, and he thinks the most important issues to local residents are good roads, schools and water and sewer service.

Jail costs

The cost of housing inmates at the Eastern Regional Jail in Berkeley County is costing officials in Berkeley and Jefferson counties millions of dollars a year, and they want lawmakers to find ways to reduce the costs or find new revenue streams to offset the cost.

It cost the Jefferson County Commission more than $2 million to keep inmates at the jail along W.Va. 9 last year, and the Berkeley County Commission is paying more than $3 million per year, officials said.

"It bites a good portion of the county's budget, which could be used for other services," outgoing Berkeley County Commission President Howard Strauss said.

Tabb said he would like to increase the state tax on beer sales to help counties pay for jail costs, while Unger said he would like to approach the problem from different angles and "not just throw money at it."

Unger said part of the problem is a lack of police in the Eastern Panhandle. An officer assigned to investigate a murder also might have to handle calls about car accidents and domestic disputes, which slows down the officer's work in getting ready for a trial, Unger said.

If the state can add more officers to the area, officers can get cases through the courts quicker and save on jail costs, Unger said.

"We are definitely going to start focusing on those issues," Unger said.

Raleigh Street extension

Traffic congestion has been increasing in the northern part of Martinsburg, and Martinsburg city officials have been pushing to extend Raleigh Street to help alleviate the problem.

Raleigh Street currently dead ends downtown, but there has been a proposal to extend it to Edwin Miller Boulevard, where a new U.S. Coast Guard facility is scheduled to be built. About $14 million has been set aside for the new road, but about $27 million is needed, Martinsburg Mayor George Karos said.

Tabb said funding for the road depends largely on how the federal budget is crafted. Much of the funding needs to come from the federal government, but the state could end up committing some funding if federal money comes through, Tabb said.

Other issues expected to get consideration in the 60-day legislative session include:

· Casino table games legislation that would allow state racetracks such as Charles Town Races & Slots to have the games. When table game legislation was being considered last year in the Legislature, local officials expressed concern about the future of horse racing at the local thoroughbred track.

Some county officials said they would support table games, but they wanted assurances that horse racing would be protected at the track.

Local lawmakers criticized a table games bill last year in the Legislature because it proposed to take away the rights of Jefferson County voters to control gaming at the track through elections.

Currently, the track must offer at least 220 days of live racing in order to have slot machines, said John Finamore, senior vice president of regional operations for Penn National Gaming Inc., which owns the racetrack.

That requirement will not be challenged in this year's table games bill, Finamore has said.

· Locality pay for local state employees such as teachers and police officers. Locality pay is higher pay for local state employees to keep them from being attracted to other states for better pay. Lawmakers have been trying to get the proposal passed in Charleston.

"I hope we can finally break through the barrier," Tabb said.

Public meetings

Del. John Doyle, D-Jefferson, will host two community meetings next week to discuss the upcoming session of the state Legislature.

The first will be Thursday, Jan. 4, at 7:30 p.m. at the Shepherdstown (W.Va.) Train Station, and the second will be Saturday, Jan. 6, at 11 a.m. at the Bolivar-Harpers Ferry Public Library on Polk Street in Harpers Ferry, W.Va.

Each meeting will last at least an hour, and Doyle will explain the issues that he thinks will dominate the session. Doyle also will answer questions from the audience.

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