Summit focuses on tax benefit for W.Va. seniors

July 25, 2007|By MATTHEW UMSTEAD

HEDGESVILLE, W.VA. - County leaders and state lawmakers representing Morgan, Berkeley and Jefferson counties agreed Tuesday to continue to work together to try to reach a solution to help older property owners avoid ever-increasing tax bills.

Del. Craig Blair, R-Berkeley, and State Sen. John Unger, D-Berkeley, said they were willing to lead a renewed effort to gain regional consensus for a plan to revise the homestead exemption, a tax benefit for residents age 65 and older.

"There's many flavors of this legislation," Blair said at a daylong legislative summit held at The Woods Resort west of Hedgesville.

The homestead exemption was included as part of a five-page list of issues county leaders discussed with area lawmakers at the summit.


Of the multiple legislative proposals, lawmakers appeared to be more optimistic that a freeze on assessments for older residents who demonstrate a financial need would be more palatable to other counties, where property values have barely increased, if at all.

Unger said he backed a legislative attempt this year by Sen. John Yoder, R-Jefferson, that would have avoided the need to amend the state constitution by deferring collection of property tax until the property was transferred or sold to another person.

Senate Bill 53 died in the Senate Finance Committee, but Unger said that bill was an attempt to provide immediate relief and that a subsequent effort to revise the constitution would have been launched.

"Under the present system, you can not forgive taxes," Unger said.

Unger later acknowledged that a freeze on property tax assessments for older residents could inadvertently attract older people from other states to move to West Virginia to escape tax increases elsewhere.

"That could be a side effect that we would try to combat," said Unger, who admitted he had not contemplated that possibility.

West Virginia, per capita, ranks as having one of the oldest populations among the 50 states, statistics show.

Morgan County Commissioner Glen R. Stotler said he would want to know "in reality, what does it cost to the county in dollars and cents" if such a freeze were implemented.

Stotler suggested that special levies for schools would lose some revenue.

Jefferson County Commissioner Jim Surkamp said the attraction of the freeze on assessments for older residents is that it would "mirror" a retiree's move to a fixed income

Del. John Overington, R-Berkeley, said more and more county leaders across the state are hearing an outcry for making an adjustment, giving him reason to believe the state Legislature is closer to addressing the issue.

"I think we have a good chance," Overington said.

Counties' wish list

Here are some of the wishes county commissioners from Berkeley, Jefferson and Morgan counties shared at Tuesday's legislative summit at The Woods:

· Regional jail costs: Implement tax on the sale of beer, wine and liquor consumed on-site or divert one third of real estate transfer tax now deposited with state to be retained by each county.

· Corporate jet tax break: County leaders expect benefits would include collection of personal property tax on hangars and creation of 150 to 200 jobs with eight proposed hangars at Eastern West Virginia Regional Airport in Martinsburg.

· Homestead Exemption: "Working group" formed to find consensus on method to aid elderly homeowners on fixed incomes with increasing tax bills.

· Bar closing hours: Renew bid to empower officials in border counties to adjust bar closing hours to match times in adjacent states.

· One Tax Bill: Proposal would allow county residents to pay fire fee, for example, as part of one tax bill, instead of multiple payments.

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