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County officers make budget requests

February 14, 2009|By MATTHEW UMSTEAD

MARTINSBURG, W.Va. -- Berkeley County Assessor Preston B. Gooden told the Berkeley County Commission last week he wasn't going to fight with them over his budget for the next fiscal year.

"All I'm asking is for you to do the best you can," Gooden said after presenting a request for $854,110 for the 2009-10 fiscal year, which begins July 1.

Gooden was the first of the county's elected officers to present their budget requests to the county commission for what again is anticipated to be a "tight" year for the county government.

The commission is charged with balancing the county's overall budget, and by state code is expected to allocate enough money to Gooden's office, the county clerk, circuit clerk, sheriff and prosecuting attorney to ensure they are able to carry out constitutional duties of property assessment, tax collection, law enforcement, voter registration, criminal and civil prosecutions, and a host of record-keeping responsibilities.

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Each of the elected officers are responsible for managing the money allocated by the commission, including payroll in their respective offices.

Gooden successfully sued the commission in circuit court in 2007 over his authority to set salaries, and 23rd Judicial Circuit Judge Christopher C. Wilkes ordered the commission to pay Gooden's attorneys $29,433.50 last year.

On Thursday, Gooden said he wanted his office to be allocated enough money from the commission to operate for six months of the fiscal year, with the other half funded with property valuation money generated by his office.

With budget cuts for the current year, Gooden said he was "zeroing out" budget lines by October, two months shy of the year's midpoint.

Commission President Ronald K. Collins said the commission was hoping to have open discussions about budget decisions, which he said would not be made "arbitrarily."

"We're going to be fair," Collins told Gooden.

Before presenting their budgets to the commission Friday, Circuit Clerk Virginia M. Sine and Sheriff Kenneth M. "Kenny" Lemaster said they both asked for additional money to give their employees a $1,000 pay increase.

Prosecuting Attorney Pamela Jean Games-Neely said she asked for a 10 percent increase to the bottom line for her budget, but didn't expect it to be granted.

Lemaster said he asked the commission to restore the budget amount for the 2007-08 fiscal year.

"It was a workable budget that got us through the year," Lemaster said.

While he didn't ask for an increase in manpower, Lemaster said he currently has five deputies who still need West Virginia State Police academy training and four vacancies, which combined adds up to about an entire work shift that is missing from responding to regular patrol duties.

"I could use additional staff, but I'll be happy to keep who I have," said Lemaster, who noted the continued cost of training new officers because more experienced deputies are leaving for higher pay and better benefits elsewhere.

After consulting with an attorney, Sine said she asked the commission to transfer four data processing staff who are under her supervision already be included in her budget.

"I did the hiring and I did the firing, so they need to be put in my budget," Sine said. "Legally, I don't think they can be paying them out of their budget."

Gooden has said the state constitution doesn't contemplate the commission have as many staff and employees that currently are under their supervision. Gooden said in a recent interview the recording of meeting minutes for the commission, for example, should be done by staff under the county clerk's supervision and legal matters should be supervised by Games-Neely.

Games-Neely in 2007 gave her blessing for the commission to hire legal counsel Norwood Bentley III, and later said she wanted a larger budget than was offered by the commission to fulfill the commission's legal needs.

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