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Berkeley Co. delays action on federal bond funding

October 22, 2009|By MATTHEW UMSTEAD

MARTINSBURG, W.VA. -- The Berkeley County Commission on Thursday hedged on taking the next step needed to tap into about $30 million in federal bonds meant to stimulate the county's depressed economy.

The commission delayed taking action on a proposed resolution that would designate the entire county, including the City of Martinsburg, as a "recovery zone" until after the issue is discussed Tuesday at the commission's retreat at The Woods Resort west of Hedgesville, W.Va.

Without action by state lawmakers, private or publicly backed development projects in the City of Martinsburg would not be eligible for the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act (ARRA) bonds, commission legal counsel Norwood Bentley III said Thursday.

Bentley said he expects lawmakers will be called into special session next month by Gov. Joe Manchin and be asked to address the legislative need. The availability of the bonds expires at the end of next year.

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While more than half of the bond money could be awarded to the private sector, the commission said about $12 million in bonds for public projects would not necessarily be exclusively spent on county commission projects, such as a planned expansion of the county's judicial center.

Commissioner William L. "Bill" Stubblefield said the availability of the bonds would be publicized and projects potentially submitted by Martinsburg, the county's water and sewer districts, and other government entities would receive fair consideration.

Commissioner Anthony J. "Tony" Petrucci said he has "deep concerns" about adding to the county's bond debt with the expansion of the judicial center, even with the growth of the caseload. If an additional courtroom is needed in the near future, Petrucci said the county's old courthouse still could be used after a much less costly refurbishment is done there.

As of June 30, the county owed $34.9 million in bonds that were issued for Berkeley County's government and judicial complex and taxpayers then were on track to pay another $22.3 million in interest by 2038, according to the county's financial statements.

"It's the people's money, so we have to be careful with it," Petrucci said.

Commission President Ronald K. Collins said Thursday the commission would obtain an opinion from its bond counsel on whether the county could afford to take on additional debt before deciding whether to move ahead with another county project.

Though less ideal than stimulus grants, which were pursued, the availability of the low-interest bonds still present an opportunity that needs to be explored, Stubblefield said.

Stubblefield said he had not talked with the City of Martinsburg about partnering with the county on a public project with the stimulus bonds, but added he would like to see the county do that.

Stubblefield said he would be in favor of exploring the idea of combining efforts to build a new law enforcement/emergency dispatch center that would house both the city police and county sheriff's departments in the city.

City leaders, meanwhile, already have been planning an expansion to City Hall along North Queen Street to make more room available for their growing police department and other offices and Martinsburg also has plans to develop a substation on the city's west side, west of Interstate 81.

The county also has plans to develop a new emergency services center at the Tabler Station Business Park near I-81 and secured 8.6 acres from the Berkeley County Development Authority for the project.

Berkeley County Sheriff Kenneth M. Lemaster has pushed for better facilities for the county's law enforcement division, which now operates in cramped conditions at 800 Emmett Rousch Drive off South Queen Street.

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