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Police levy up for renewal in Martinsburg election

June 07, 2008|By MATTHEW UMSTEAD

MARTINSBURG, W.Va. -- A sizable chunk of the $5.5 million budgeted for law and order for the next fiscal year in Martinsburg is funded by a voter-approved levy, which Mayor George Karos said last week came about after a large wave of drug dealing overwhelmed the community in the 1980s.

"Budgetwise, it was a savings for the city and their budget," Karos said of the levy, which began in 1990. "At that time, we really needed a lot of police officers and the budget could not (accommodate them)."

"It's really a bargain for everybody," Karos said. "Seventeen cents a day can't be beat, and to the best of my knowledge, it's never been increased."

Renewal of the current levy rate would generate a $63 tax bill per year for the owner of a residential property that is valued at $100,000, officials have said.

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Up for renewal again in Tuesday's municipal election, the police levy for the city's 48-officer department must be approved by 60 percent of the voters to stay in effect beyond June 30, 2009.

Polls open Tuesday at 6:30 a.m. and close at 7:30 p.m.

Projected to generate $1.2 million annually for five years, the renewal of volunteer self-taxation of residential property would continue to pay for the salary, benefits and equipment for nine police officers. It also pays for many of the police department's vehicles and three department staff members -- two dispatchers and a part-time systems operator, according to records maintained by City Finance Department Director Mark B. Spickler.

Karos said it was "cost-prohibitive" to incorporate the levy-generated revenue into the city's regular budget for the department's other officers and eliminate the need for a special levy vote.

"It's more economical to do it this way," Karos said. "Why tax people when you have another alternative?"

The levy vote comes a year in advance of the current levy's expiration, but avoids the cost of a special election, Karos said.

If renewed, the levy would not expire until June 30, 2014, but the timing of the next expiration might force city officials to pay for a special election on the question in 2013, Spickler said. Holding the vote in 2012 would be too early to project accurate financial information about the future levy renewal, Spickler said.

In addition to the money generated by the levy, Spickler said the city has budgeted about $4.5 million from the general fund for the department's 39 remaining officers, dispatchers, administrative staff, municipal court clerks and judicial officers in the next fiscal year, beginning July 1.

Of the police officers funded through the general fund, two are being supported by $65,000 in federal grant money and a third assigned to Martinsburg High School is funded in cooperation with Berkeley County Schools. The city's participation in the Eastern Panhandle Drug and Violent Crime Task Force is expected to net $147,000 in state funding for the next fiscal year.

"The federal dollars will go away in the next couple years," Spickler said. If the levy money went away, it would "strap this city pretty tight," he said.

Police Chief Donald Anderson said last week that the city still has a drug problem, as do most communities in the United States.

"Just last year, in relation to drugs, the City of Martinsburg themselves made 313 adult arrests for illicit drugs," Anderson said. "Seventy-four of those were felony arrests (in 2007)."

The percentage of the city's violent crime in 2006 was proportionally comparable to Charleston, the state's largest city, according to a state analysis published in October 2007. But Anderson said the study showed that Martinsburg had experienced the greatest rate reduction in property crime between 2002 and 2006. The city's overall crime rate declined in that same period as well, according to the state Department of Military Affairs & Public Safety's Division of Criminal Justice Services.

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