Tax hike will help pay for new courthouseWithout state funding, the burden is on local people
After much agonizing and debate, the Morgan County Commissioners unanimously approved a 9% tax increase last Friday afternoon, March 23.
The hike only applies to the county government portion of the property tax bill, which is less than a quarter of the total bill. The increase will raise the overall bill by 2% or 3%.
More than three-quarters of the tax bill is collected for schools. The school board was expected to set their tax rate last night.
The extra income for county government will fund the interest on $4 million in revenue bonds that will help finance a new courthouse. It would bring in an estimated $234,533 of additional county revenue to pay back the bonds over 30 years.
If you are now paying $1,000 in property taxes, the county's tax increase will mean about $22.50 in additional taxes. The increase would be more if your property's assessment went up this year.
The Morgan County Courthouse was destroyed in an August 8 fire. The cost estimate for a new three-story building, plus an addition for the Sheriff's Law Enforcement office at the Morgan County Rescue Squad, is more than $12 million.
County officials have only around $4 million from insurance for the project. They have received additional contributions for the project from state judicial sources.
With no appropriations for the courthouse yet promised by the governor or legislature, the commissioners felt they had no other choice but to adopt a tax increase on their portion of the county tax bill.
A difficult decision
County Commission president Glen Stotler warned that if they did not approve a tax increase, they were putting themselves in a vulnerable position since they would not be able to build a new courthouse for $4 million. A bond levy for $4 million or $8 million would have to be approved by voters.
The commissioners also had to decide on the tax increase before the county budget was turned in to the state on March 28.
Commissioner Tommy Swaim made the motion to approve the tax increase. He said he had agonized about the decision for a week because he knew people were strapped by taxes.
Commissioner Brenda Hutchinson was also concerned that the increase would put more financial pressure
on people. She seconded the motion
to make sure that the county would have at least $8 million for the courthouse.
Stotler voiced his vote for the increase, showing a united front.
During the morning session on March 23, around 50 county residents packed the new meeting trailer for a public hearing about the tax hike.
Commissioners Stotler, Swaim and Hutchinson listened as many retirees or people on fixed incomes told of hardships caused by increased property assessments.
Some said they are having difficulty making ends meet and would have to move from the area or move in with other family members if the assessment hikes and the tax increases continued.
John Cosgrove asked what incentive there was for people to fix up their property if all it did was keep their assessments rising.
Sam Swaim felt that the new courthouse was extravagant in its design and could be built for half the cost.
Victor Dill wanted to know why the courthouse had to be built all at once instead of in stages.
Paris Gee wondered why the state couldn't pick up the bill for the new courthouse.
Commissioner Stotler agreed the state should help. When floods devastated the southern counties, the state rushed to their aid, he said.
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Gee and others didn't see what services the county was providing for the taxes they were already paying. Residents raised issues like trash collection, the lack of road services, the need for more police and the need for more businesses to support the tax base.
Jack Waugh wondered where all the money was going that was already coming in with the increased assessments.
Ed George thought the county and the schools should be swimming in money from the increased property assessments.
Thought voters should decide
Retired teacher Dorothy Sites liked the new courthouse design. She, and others, wanted voters to have the chance to vote on a bond issue instead of having a tax increase.
Stotler said that there would still be the same increase in taxes if a revenue bond passed.
The public hearing heated up when Gary Lee Nelson called for Commissioners Swaim and Stotler to resign because they had failed to insure the courthouse at its replacement value.
The issue of courthouses being underinsured is now a statewide concern.
Later, the commissioners disputed the claim that the courthouse was grossly underinsured. The county had insurance on five of the main buildings, but not on the old jail, said Stotler. All were insured to the limit.
The main courthouse building was insured for about $2 million and the loss was considered at $2,069,000, said Stotler.
The Assessor's Office was insured to the limit of $375,000 and the building was considered a $451,000 loss, he said.
The County Commission Office had $305,000 in insurance coverage and was considered a $310,000 loss.
The courthouse annex was insured at the limit of $260,000 and was considered a $219,000 loss, said Stotler.
The Sheriff's Law Office was insured for $885,000 and was considered a partial loss at $355,000.
The total limit in coverage for all buildings was $3,825,000 and the total loss was considered at $3,406,575. The total paid by insurance is $3,254,475, he said.
Furnishings could not be retrieved and sold because of the structural damage to the building and safety issues.
May still be a bond election
If the West Virginia Legislature doesn't come through with additional money, the commissioners will still have to ask the voters to pass a bond issue, said Stotler.
It would take around 90 days to arrange such an election, said County Clerk Debra Kesecker.
Stotler announced that Governor Joe Manchin was coming here on Wednesday, April 11 for other business and that he would meet with the commissioners that afternoon.
Stotler hoped Manchin would be offering financial assistance to rebuild the courthouse.