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Council expansion on ballot

November 01, 2008|By MATTHEW UMSTEAD

MARTINSBURG, W.Va. - Five of Berkeley County's six political districts would be represented on the governing board responsible for balancing the county's more than $20 million budget if voters approve a special ballot question in Tuesday's general election.

If passed, the current three-member Berkeley County Commission would become a five-member "Berkeley County Council" in January 2011. The additional seats would filled in the 2010 general election. Though expanded and renamed, the Council members' fiscal responsibility and relationship with the county's other elected officers would remain unchanged.

The County Council would be comprised of residents elected from any five of the county's six "magisterial" districts. The magisterial district boundaries in each West Virginia county are adjusted every 10 years after the U.S. Census to equally divide the population for commission and board of education elections. The boundaries often overlap lines drawn for State Legislature districts.

The additional representation would cost county taxpayers at least $36,960 in annual salary, plus benefits per additional member based on current figures. A one-time cost of capital improvements needed to make room for the additional county officers in the local government's office building at 400 W. Stephen St., also would have to be absorbed by 2011.

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Two of the county's current commissioners - William L. "Bill" Stubblefield and Steven C. Teufel - have supported allowing voters to have the opportunity to decide the expansion question.

"I'd prefer to have three full-time, fully committed commissioners than five part-time commissioners," Stubblefield said of his opposition to the expansion.

Commissioner Ronald K. Collins has voted against putting it on the ballot, criticizing the additional cost to taxpayers as unnecessary because the current system is not broken.

If adopted, Berkeley County would become the first in the state to approve an expansion of the commission, which was allowed by a law the State Legislature passed earlier this year.

Neighboring Jefferson County has had five commissioners for many years and is the only one of the state's 55 counties with more than three commissioners.

An advocate increasing representation, Teufel has said the additional commissioners would ensure county business is not disrupted when a member is unable to attend meetings for health or emergency reasons. Along with fiscal management, the Commission is directly responsible for maintenance of county-owned buildings, the planning and engineering departments that review and permit county development and homeland security/emergency services.

When Teufel was elected in 2002, he replaced Robert Burkhart, who was absent for nearly four months that year while recovering from a stroke. In 2004, former County Commissioner John E. Wright inexplicably attended only two meetings in the first nine months of his last year in office and was absent 15 times in 2002 and 2003, according to archived county commission minutes.

n For the first time in 50 years, Morgan County will vote on the excess school levy in the general election and not in a special election usually held in December.

A special election had a price tag of about $25,000, Schools Superintendent David Banks said, which was "too costly."

About half of the estimated $5.5 million excess school levy is used for supplemental salaries and benefits. Banks said employees would lose $2,500 per years if the levy fails.

The funding also provides instructional materials such as textbooks and technology equipment, and extracurricular activities such as athletics, music and the arts "of which our students have come to expect and deserve as part of their education," said Morgan County Board of Education member Larry Omps.

"The Morgan County Board of Education members have placed their trust in the voters to vote 'yes' for the levy to provide the best for Morgan County schools," Omps said.

Staff writer Trish Rudder contribued to this story.

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