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Lawmakers tackle plenty of weighty issues

March 12, 2007|by DAVE McMILLION

High-interest issues like casino table games and teacher pay raises might have dominated the headlines, but lawmakers in the recently concluded session of the West Virginia Legislature over the weekend also dealt with a number of other issues of interest to the Eastern Panhandle.

The 60-day legislative session ended at midnight Saturday in Charleston, W.Va.

Under action taken by the Legislature, local governments could get funding to help offset high costs of housing inmates at Eastern Regional Jail in Berkeley County and businesses will get relief from the state franchise tax.

Besides a 3.5 percent pay raise for state teachers, lawmakers also approved other plans to free up money for local schools.

On the other hand, issues that local officials hoped would get some attention in the Legislature, like annexation reform, were not looked on favorably by lawmakers.

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Annexation has been a closely-watched issue in Jefferson County as Ranson (W.Va.) and Charles Town (W.Va.) have been expanding their borders.

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 revenues to offset the cost.

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

Under the casino table games bill passed by the Legislature, a certain portion of game revenues would be given to counties to help offset jail bills, although exact funding figures were not available Sunday, local lawmakers said.

Jefferson County government would not receive any casino table games money for jail costs since a provision in the casino games bill gives all of Jefferson County's casino table revenue to Jefferson County Schools, said Sen. John Yoder, R-Jefferson.

Tax relief

The Legislature passed some tax relief measures, including one that would nearly eliminate the business franchise tax. The business franchise tax is a tax on gross revenues and it is seen as one of the most harmful taxes for new business growth, Yoder said.

Under the plan, the tax would gradually be reduced from 5.5 percent to 2 percent over eight years, Yoder said.

School funding

A school funding bill passed by the Legislature would generate up to $1.5 million for Berkeley County Schools and possibly up to $700,000 for Jefferson County Schools. Lawmakers said the proposal was vital to help the rapidly growing schools deal with funding restraints and could be used to help boost teacher salaries, which are much lower than those offered in neighboring states.

The plan deals with the so-called school-aid formula that is used to calculate how much a county school system gets from the state to run its schools every year.

A county's school-aid formula is based on how many students a county has, among other factors, Duke said.

After that amount of state money is determined, the amount of money generated from a local general levy is subtracted from the state funding, said Del. Walter Duke, R-Berkeley.

Duke co-sponsored a bill that would have reduced the amount of the local share that is subtracted from the state-aid formula down to 70 percent.

Lawmakers agreed to reduce the local share that is subtracted from the state aid formula to 94 percent next year and down to 90 percent the following year, Duke said.

Duke said the plan could generate as much as $520,000 for Berkeley County Schools next year and $1.5 million for the school system the following year.

Jefferson County Schools could receive as much as $700,000, Duke said.

Annexation

Although lawmakers took no action on annexation reform, the issue may be studied in Legislative interim meetings, said Del. Bob Tabb, D-Jefferson.

Yoder said he introduced a bill that would have allowed county commissions to hold a public hearing on annexation that extended farther than three air miles from a city border. Under the bill, a county commission could have voted down a city annexation if the commission believed such an annexation hurt a county's land planning efforts, Yoder said.

"There's a lot of opposition in the Senate to do anything on annexation," Yoder said.

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

Sometimes referred to as "shoestring" annexations, it can interfere with a county's ability to perform land planning, county officials have said.

Ranson and Charles Town city officials have defended their right to annex, saying they need to take in new areas where they can establish new commercial areas and boost their tax revenue.

Last week, two proposals to annex property into the City of Charles Town drew criticism from other government officials in the county after concerns were raised about how the annexations might affect historical areas or the ability to provide public services.

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