Amendments to W.Va. constitution would allow simple majority of voters to rule

February 24, 2011|By MATTHEW UMSTEAD |

MARTINSBURG, W.Va. — A "silenced majority" of Berkeley County voters in 2004 approved a levy to support the county's parks and recreation programs, but the measure still failed.

Passage of such a proposal requires a 60 percent majority of the vote, a state-mandated margin that has proved to be a formidable obstacle for county recreation officials who three times have failed to win voter approval for a recreation levy.

While Martinsburg-Berkeley County Parks & Recreation Board Executive Director R. Stephen "Steve" Catlett understands that people generally do not want to pay taxes, he said they continue to expect more recreation amenities and services.

"It's frustrating," Catlett said Wednesday.

Voters will have the opportunity to vote on an amendment to the state constitution that would change the law to a simple majority if lawmakers adopt either of two resolutions pending in the Legislature. But Catlett doubts that a levy would pass, given the economic climate.

Senate Joint Resolution No. 9, which proposes a vote on the "Silenced Majority Local Levy and Bond Amendment," is scheduled to be voted on by the Senate today after it is read for a third time, according to the Senate Clerk's office.

If adopted by voters, the amendment would allow residents of a county, school district, city or municipal corporation in the state to approve a levy or bond by a simple majority of voters.

"That's what our democracy is built upon, that majority rules," said Senate Majority Leader John Unger, D-Berkeley/Jefferson, who is one of the resolution sponsors.

A similar resolution sponsored by Dels. TIffany E. Lawrence and John Doyle, both D-Jefferson, is pending in the House Judiciary Committee, according to the West Virginia Legislature's Office of Reference & Information website.

Catlett said about 54 percent of votes cast in 2004 were for the recreation levy. Through an assessment of 1 cent for every $100 of assessed Class II property, the owners of a $100,000 home would have paid $6 a year. The levy was projected to generate about $312,000 a year, which was to be used to expand, improve and develop parks and recreational facilities and to help with operating expenses.

Currently, the amount of local tax support per resident is less than $2.50 per year, according to a Marshall University professor's analysis of the Parks & Recreation Board's 2009-10 fiscal year budget. The level of support was the lowest among eight peer agencies in the state that were part of Assistant Professor Richard Abel's analysis.

Catlett recently noted that the money generated through the school district's general levy, which voters renewed last fall, is the only long-range funding guarantee on which the Parks & Recreation Board can rely.

Included with the school levy renewal is a $12,500 increase in funding, which Catlett noted Monday night in thanking the Board of Education for its long-standing support and its decision to allocate land for a public recreation center in southern Berkeley County.

"If it weren't for your support, we couldn't touch nearly the lives that we are touching in public recreation," Catlett said.

Proposed to be built on the campus of Musselman High School, the county's second recreation center was among capital improvements to be made with recreation levy-generated money, Catlett said recently.

With the failure of the levy, the project stalled until Powerball lottery winner and former Berkeley County sheriff and magistrate W. Randy Smith committed the funding to build the recreation center, which now is estimated to cost as much as $1.5 million.

"At some point, if we want these things, we're going to have to pay for them," Catlett said. "There's not going to be a Randy Smith (gift) happening every year."

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