Amendment 2 hearing

Seth DiStefano, left, presents the West Virginia Center on Budget and Policy's findings on the impact of Amendment 2 as Mineral Commissioner Dr. Richard "Doc" Lechliter listens Wednesday.

KEYSER, W.Va. — Parties both for and against the passage of Amendment 2 turned out at the Mineral County Courthouse on Wednesday evening for a public hearing during which passions occasionally ran high during the discussion.

The proposal, known as the Property Tax Modernization Amendment, would give the West Virginia Legislature the authority to abolish existing taxes on motor vehicles as well as the personal property taxes for business equipment and inventory. State legislators who drafted the plan say the replacement funds to account for the cuts would come from projected budget surpluses in coming years.

Opponents of the amendment, many of whom are local and state leaders themselves, are concerned about the long-term viability of the measure. Current and former officials representing Mineral County, as well as hopeful ones, spoke on both sides of the issue.

Seth DiStefano, policy outreach director for the West Virginia Center on Budget and Policy, presented on the details of the proposed amendment. If passed, he said, the center’s analysis of data from the county assessor’s office and the commission indicates that Mineral County could potentially lose nearly a quarter of its budget, or $1.7 million.

In 2021, DiStefano said, of the $21 million in county property taxes, more than $14 million (nearly 68%) funded schools, while $5.7 million (about 27%) went to the county and 4.5% to municipalities. Just 0.4% was paid to the state, DiStefano said.

Property taxes account for 30% of the county’s budget, and the tax cuts that Amendment 2 paves the way for could eliminate up to $6.7 million of property tax revenue in Mineral County, though the state school aid formula could make up $2 million of the difference. The cuts also jeopardize a combined $265,000 for fire and ambulance levies, DiStefano said.

Using the county’s fiscal year 2019-2020 $7.1 million budget as reference, up to $1.7 million could be missing from future county budgets, DiStefano said. Center data also shows $2.7 million missing from the schools.

In 2021, DiStefano said, the taxes that the Legislature wants to eliminate accounted for $515 million in statewide property tax revenue.

While there have been budget surpluses in recent years, DiStefano said, “West Virginia’s budget can be, and oftentimes is, very unpredictable.”

Coal and gas severance taxes tend to fluctuate, DiStefano said, as the resources aren’t always in demand as they have been. Further, accounting for the $12 billion in federal aid the state received during the pandemic “we feel is not a good idea,” he said.

“A lot of the plans that have been put forward as to how the state Legislature will absolutely be able to make counties whole, to make school boards whole, so much of that is built on a foundation that really only looks at West Virginia’s growth during COVID,” DiStefano said. “That is not a good way to do this. ... If you put $12 billion in federal money into a state like West Virginia, you will see growth, but the problem is that money simply isn’t going to last forever.”

If future budgets aren’t as expected, “the Legislature gets to decide who takes the hit,” DiStefano said. “When it comes to the Legislature cutting state government, cutting themselves or passing on the pain to local communities, I just don’t like the odds for local communities in that particular scenario. I really don’t.”

Sen. Craig Blair, a Republican who serves as Senate president and represents part of Mineral County, said “the information that’s been given to you tonight paints the Legislature in a poor picture, and I would argue that it’s anything but.

“When’s the last time you’ve seen any Legislature come back and want to give you some of your tax dollars back so you can keep some of it in your pocket?,” Blair said. “That’s what this Legislature is trying to do. We’re trying to do just that while we keep the counties whole.”

While he understood “apprehension,” Blair said, “what the Senate’s trying to do is proposed legislation. It still goes through the whole legislative process on how we can get this right.”

Blair said the Legislature hopes the tax revisions, if approved, helps stem the tide of employers and residents leaving West Virginia.

“It’s not just about moving people here. It’s about making lives better for all West Virginians,” Blair said. “This is the beginning of a new day for the state of West Virginia if you vote yes, and you have the opportunity to have input.”

Mineral County Clerk Lauren Ellifritz questioned the amendment’s long-term potential and noted that “there’s a lot we’d have to cut if it passes.”

“One of my many concerns is the fact that you keep saying ‘Guarantee, guarantee, guarantee,’ when in fact, this amendment only allows the legislators to make this, when in fact, the delegates and senators are on the ballot, we don’t know every two years who our delegates are gonna be,” Ellifritz said. “How do we know the next delegates and senators coming in? You can’t say for sure what they’re going to do with our money.”

It’s “not true” that the county would have to cut anything if Amendment 2 passes and the cuts are implemented, Blair said.

“I have 22 years’ experience in the Legislature, and I can tell you ... you cannot sit there and guarantee what any Legislature is going to do. You cannot do that,” Bob Harman, a former state delegate and Mineral County commissioner, said.

Mineral County Sheriff Forrest “Buddy” Ellifritz said he took issue with the state’s lack of a clear plan.

“Where is the plan that guarantees each county where the money’s coming from and will guarantee that it will continue on?” he said.

“The plan itself is right here, but it’s proposed,” Blair replied. “It’s got a lot of work to make sure that we get it right.”

With critical funds potentially missing, Sheriff Ellifritz said he worried about “how am I going to be able to send a deputy to Short Gap on the next armed robbery? Who am I going to have to eliminate from my department?”

“For lack of a better term, we don’t have a whole lot of faith in what you’ve got in your book right there,” said Mineral County Firefighters Association President Chad Lindsay in reference to the stack of plans Blair brought with him.

Lindsay said he fears the large cuts to fire levies the plan could create.

“All these people here we represent and take care of expect us to be perfect,” Lindsay said. “We can’t do that if you cut our feet off, and you have not said a thing here tonight to tell me you can guarantee that this is going to go through.”

Lindsay Renner-Wood is a reporter for the Cumberland Times-News. Follow her on Twitter @LindsayRenWood, email lrenner-wood@times-news.com or call 304-639-4403.

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Lindsay Renner-Wood is a reporter for the Cumberland Times-News, covering West Virginia and more. Follow her on Twitter @LindsayRenWood, email lrenner-wood@times-news.com or call 304-639-4403.

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