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Berkeley County hikes levy rate

March 26, 2009|By MATTHEW UMSTEAD

MARTINSBURG, W.Va. -- Berkeley County taxpayers will see an increase in their property taxes on their next bill.

The Berkeley County Commission on Thursday unanimously adopted a 12 percent increase in the levy rate used to calculate tax bills as a means to help balance a budget that has been drained by the collapse of the housing market.

The levy increase was approved as part of the county's 2009-10 fiscal year budget plan, which also was adopted Thursday.

The owner of a Class II residential property with a $150,000 market value will pay $23.04 more per year in taxes, County Administrator Deborah Hammond.

No increases in salaries were included in the budget, which still needs state approval before the commission can "lay" or set the new levy rates next month.

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The levy rates adopted Thursday were 11.24 cents per $100 for Class I property, 22.48 cents for Class II and 44.96 cents for Class III and IV.

The taxes collected are projected to generate $15.4 million for the county's $22.3 million general fund budget, according to the county's next budget plan.

While not citing any employee's salary, county resident Michael Folk told the commission Thursday he believed taxpayers still were paying for "overpriced leadership" and questioned whether enough budget cuts had been made to departments the commission controls.

Hours after the budget was adopted, Circuit Clerk Virginia M. Sine said the commission's budget plan to eliminate four positions in her office would not happen without an apparent legal fight.

"I will be talking with my attorney (today)," Sine said.

The 2009-10 budget proposes the elimination of three positions in Sine's office and a fourth position would be transferred from there to work for Gary Wine, the county's information technology director, Commission President Ronald K. Collins said Thursday.

If Sine wants to retain the three employees, Collins said she would have to make room in her budget for them with the same amount of money her office was allocated for the current fiscal year.

Collins said he did not know what work the additional employee for Wine would be assigned to do. Wine did not request an additional employee in his budget presentations to the commission earlier this month.

"If I'm going to make room, I'm going to keep all four," Sine said after being asked about the budget changes.

While Sine and the prosecuting attorney, assessor, county commission and county clerk generally are expected to operate next year at the same funding levels as the current year, money for outside agencies, such as the senior center and Eastern West Virginia Regional Airport Authority, was slashed by as much as 20 percent Thursday by the commission.

With the savings, the commission approved an additional $175,000 for the sheriff, who had said previous budget cuts were too severe for his department to be able to operate.

Commissioner William L. "Bill" Stubblefield said after the budget was approved he would like to reduce its fixed liabilities by selling the 5.51-acre Martin's Food Market/CVS plaza property. The commission purchased it for $3.15 million in February 2007.

"We would like to sell (the plaza) as soon as the market turns around ..." Stubblefield said.

Two county buildings at 110 and 126 W. King St. cannot be sold until the commission addresses the vault issue for Sine's office and make room for the county clerk's offices in the Dunn Building at 400 W. Stephen St., Stubblefield said.

The county currently is saddled with an annual $2.3 million debt service payment for the former Blue Ridge Outlets property it purchased for the new county offices and judicial center along South Raleigh, West Stephen and West South streets.

The county's debt payment was increased by $75,000 this year to cover the cost of an ongoing project to replace the roof of the Dunn Building, which also is home to Blue Ridge Community & Technical College.

Sine, meanwhile, does not have a fireproof vault to store court records, which is required by state law. The county commission is charged by state law with the duty of providing adequate facilities for all of the other elected officers. Building a vault in a footprint the size of the old Martin's Food Market would provide enough space for Sine's office for the long term, but Stubblefield said the county cannot afford a project of that size.

Given the volume of records being generated, county officials have asked the West Virginia Supreme Court of Appeals to consider allowing the circuit clerk to store records electronically and not have to keep a paper trail, Stubblefield said.

The state's high court has yet to respond to the letter.

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