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Berkeley Co. OKs tax increase

July 06, 2007|By MATTHEW UMSTEAD

MARTINSBURG, W.Va. - Berkeley County Commissioner Ronald K. Collins said he was able fulfill a commitment and a campaign promise Thursday.

Steve Catlett, executive director of the Martinsburg-Berkeley County Parks & Recreation Board, said he would have to find "a new battle to fight."

After more than three years, the battle to increase the tax on guests at hotels, motels and other lodging establishments in Berkeley County is over, at least for now.

Collins and fellow Commissioners Steven C. Teufel and William L. "Bill" Stubblefield unanimously voted Thursday to increase the tax from 3 percent to 6 percent. The increase, already in effect at lodging businesses within the City of Martinsburg, is supposed to be collected beginning July 15.

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"Thank you very much," Catlett told the commission after the vote was taken.

Collins said he was happy to meet an election-year commitment he made to the Parks & Recreation Board, which has been forced to rely on tax revenue over the years.

"It took us three years to get this through," Collins said of the legislative effort that came before the county's ordinance was amended. "We stood side by side."

Catlett has eyed that money for bolstering the Parks & Recreation board's facilities, which now include a recreation center presently undergoing a three-wing expansion, 13 parks, a playground, two swimming pools and two athletic fields. The board's programs include gymnastics, league basketball, a summer playground program for young children and a number of other activities.

With the increase, half of the hotel/motel tax must be diverted to the Martinsburg-Berkeley County Convention and Visitors Bureau (CVB), per state law.

In the commission's night session Thursday, the leader of a nonprofit artisan organization told the commission she planned to ask the CVB to support joining an effort to establish an art center at Boydville, a historic estate in downtown Martinsburg.

CVB Executive Director Andrea Ball could not be reached for comment Thursday night.

Though now owned by the Berkeley County Farmland Protection Board, ArtBerkeley President Bonnie Rockie said she will pitch the idea of keeping the estate in public use by deeding the 13-acre property to the CVB.

Whether transferred to another public entity or returned to private hands, the property eventually will have a conservation easement on it, which will prevent development, officials have said.

Norwood Bentley III, legal counsel for the commission, said Thursday he doubted that state code would allow the CVB to use the Boydville property as its permanent home, then conceded that the easement did not necessarily protect the house, which still could "probably be torn down"

"I'm just raising the issue that I believe the code precludes a lot of really good ideas," Bentley said of the property's use.

Lavonne Paden, executive director of the Farmland Board, said she didn't believe the CVB would be precluded from being deeded the property, but whatever they did do there would have to be done carefully.

Rockie said she obtained 450 signatures from people interested in the property remaining in public hands, and indicated the estate could be a tourism draw and a place for the county's four garden clubs to exhibit their work, along with art classes and a cornerstone for CVB events.

Commission President Steven C. Teufel advised that the Farmland Board should not make a hasty decision to sell or transfer the property to new owners. Along with Collins and Stubblefield, Teufel appeared to agree that the county-appointed board should decide the property's fate, not the commission itself.

"It's a cautious situation - take your time," Teufel told board leader George Miller, who inquired about advertising the property with county buildings already slated to be sold later this year. "Don't rush into anything."

Stubblefield said he hoped there was a way the property could remain within the public domain, but questioned who was going to raise the money to pay for the circa-1812 estate's upkeep.

Rockie was confident there was enough interest in the property that it could be done.

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