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KEYSER, W.Va. — Proposed amendments to the West Virginia state constitution would have a direct, negative impact on many services in Mineral County and across the state, say local officials, although state legislators say differently.

Amendments 2 and 4, both on the ballot when voters go to the polls Nov. 8, have brooked opposition statewide — including from Gov. Jim Justice, who’s hosted a series of town hall discussions throughout the state on Amendment 2 — though the legislators who support the measure say it has been misrepresented.

If voters approve, Amendment 2 would grant legislators the authority to eliminate both the state’s motor vehicle tax and personal property taxes on business equipment and inventory. Amendment 4 would require the state Board of Education to present proposed plans to the legislature for final approval.

The other amendments, 1 and 3, concern court authority over impeachment proceedings and the incorporation of churches, respectively.

Entities like the West Virginia Association of Counties and the County Commissioners Association of West Virginia have voiced opposition to Amendment 2, while others like the West Virginia Manufacturers Association have been ardent supporters. Earlier this week, Justice proposed eliminating the state’s personal vehicle tax as an alternative to Amendment 2.

The Mineral County Commission is hosting an informational session on Amendment 2 on Wednesday evening, and the county Board of Education will vote when they meet Tuesday on whether to adopt a resolution opposing both 2 and 4. Senate President Craig Blair, a Republican whose district includes a portion of Mineral County, plans to attend Wednesday’s 6:30 p.m. Commission meeting.

Legislature perspective

Del. Gary Howell, a Republican representing Mineral County who serves as the House of Delegates’ speaker pro tempore and chair of the legislature’s economic development committee, characterized the state’s current tax structure as antiquated.

West Virginia is one of only a dozen or so states that taxes business inventory and equipment, which could drive off entities that might otherwise relocate there, he said.

While “the counties are worried about loss of revenue, the plan that the Senate has put forward actually replaces that revenue, plus adding additional revenue on top of it,” Howell said. “The counties will actually get more money. Mineral County, under the Senate plan, would get approximately $1.9 million extra.”

That figure, according to Howell, is based on the assessment value of personal property in the county over five years, and also accounts for its 2021 regional jail invoice. The data the Legislature used to calculate it is drawn from the state Association of Counties and Department of Revenue.

The replacement revenue, according to the Legislature’s proposal, would come from the state’s base budget and would be calculated based on three scenarios. The first, which affects 20 counties, including Mineral, is based on the highest assessment values over the last five years.

Sen. Blair said that if the state’s personal property tax were eliminated, it wouldn’t necessarily be a permanent measure.

“The Legislature could actually do away with the personal property tax, and then five years later, go back and make it exactly how it is today if it didn’t work out,” Blair said. “It doesn’t mean that the counties are going to get hurt. That is the governor going out here, spouting misinformation about what’s going on.”

The proposed amendments aren’t intended to harm the counties, and Amendment 2 in particular makes it so “each county gets at least a million dollars more,” he said.

“We’re not enemies,” Blair said. “The state is not going to hurt any county or any county board of education.”

Howell said Amendment 4 is intended to allow the Legislature to review state Board of Education policies before they are implemented. Other state entities are currently subject to that oversight, he said, with education being the “exception.”

“It’s a check on them to follow up with what the people of West Virginia want, because there are times that the people of West Virginia want something and the educators may not agree with it, but the public wants it done that way,” Howell said. “It gives us the ability to make sure that happens.”

Howell also noted Amendment 3 is to allow churches to incorporate per federal standards, which the state constitution presently doesn’t allow.

Long-term prospects

Mineral County Commissioner Dr. Richard “Doc” Lechliter said that while he’s in favor of tax reform, the Legislature’s proposed approach is not the right one.

Assessor Jill Cosner’s office determined the cuts would cost the county roughly 30% of its budget, Lechliter said, or “between $1-2 million short on a $6 million budget.”

Lechliter, a Republican, had the opportunity to review the state’s plan about two months ago and had concerns about the approach.

“They came up with this plan based on where we would see our money lost, and the information was correct for our county, but unfortunately, the information they had for some other counties was completely wrong,” Lechliter said, “and they didn’t realize that, so that has a lot of us worried that they haven’t developed a good plan to fulfill our budgets.”

Further, Lechliter said, “they’re using a lot of this severance money, you know, gas and coal, which has increased over the last few years because of other things happening, but that’s always so volatile. You never know when it’s going to drop off all of a sudden.”

“To us, we feel like there’s no guarantee that they’re going to keep getting the income the state’s been getting,” Lechliter said.

While Mineral County would welcome the extra income the plan proposes, Lechliter said the county’s concern is what happens “when you get used to it, and then all of a sudden it’s not there.”

“We would have to go to Charleston maybe and beg for more, which we don’t have to do now,” he said. “Our budget is based totally on the tax structure and the way the code is. In the future, if we have to go and try and beg from the Legislature, which would be of course 55 counties and all kinds of cities and towns that would be affected as well. It makes us all kind of worried between those different entities that, after 2-3 years, it might put us in a really bad spot.”

Lechliter proposed a gradual approach.

“I really wouldn’t oppose it if maybe they lower the way that vehicles are taxed, because if it’s just a little bit, that would not affect us a great deal,” he said. “It’s if they take it all away that we need time to figure out how to budget that.”

‘Too open ended’

G.T. Parsons, president of the West Virginia State Fireman’s Association and chief of the Romney Volunteer Fire Company in Hampshire County, said Mineral and Hampshire counties are among those in the state that use annual fire levies to fund their departments. Other counties use fire fees.

Counties that employ fire fees collect them separately from property taxes, Parsons said. Fire levies are collected from a portion of property tax revenue, he said, so those counties would feel the impact much more directly.

Parsons said many departments are already dealing with reduced funds due to the impacts of COVID-19 and other factors, making the proposed tax cuts much more difficult to surmount financially, and not just for firefighters.

“That’s ultimately going to decrease the funding to fire departments. It’s going to decrease the funding to the school systems because guess what? School systems are paid on your personal property taxes,” he said. “It’s not only going to affect the volunteer fire departments in the area, at least in Mineral and Hampshire counties who have fire levies. It’s going to cut deeper into the school system budgets, and that’s going to be huge. That’s going to be drastic.

“We’re at the point with the increase in what equipment costs and new apparatus that we can’t afford to operate sufficiently with losing money due to Amendment 2,” Parsons said.

The Legislature’s proposal, he said, “works for right now, and then you’ve got to hope that the counties do the right thing and get the money back to the people who lost it.

“Who says that they guarantee that money goes back to augment the fire levy money, or the school budget money or the parks and rec budget? There’s too many ifs, and there’s too many open-end promises,” Parsons said.

Like Lechliter, Parsons said he didn’t oppose tax reform, but wanted a more prudent approach without the potential to impact critical services.

“I’m a West Virginia citizen, and absolutely I want my taxes cut,” Parsons said. “There isn’t one citizen in the state of West Virginia that wouldn’t say that, but at what cost do you cut the taxes? It’s just too open-ended to me.”

‘Best left to experts’

Mineral County Schools Superintendent Troy Ravenscroft was opposed to both measures. County schools would feel the brunt of cuts to the tax base proposed in Amendment 2, he said in emailed comments.

Personal property taxes, he wrote, account for “more than $500 million in revenue statewide, the majority of which is paid to local school districts, county commissions, and municipalities.”

Because county, municipal and school budgets account so heavily for that revenue in their general operating budgets, Ravenscroft wrote, “without a known plan to provide these dollars to counties, cities, and school districts, it is unknown exactly what impact Amendment 2 could have on a school district budget. If Amendment 2 passes, though, the Legislature would have authority to limit that revenue to school districts.”

Amendment 4, wrote Ravenscroft, would err by placing educational decisions in the hands of the Legislature and not leaving it in the hands of experts. By remaining in the state board’s control, he also noted, the nonpartisan county school boards help foster “quality education that prepares them for the future in an environment that is safe and free of political agendas.”

“Education decisions are best left to experts and professionals in the education field. Amendment 4 has the potential to take important decisions about our local schools away from these experts, teachers, service personnel, parents, and local school boards who all work together to make the best possible decisions about how to provide a high-quality education for our students,” he wrote.

‘Can’t let that happen’

Jason Armentrout, chair of the Mineral County Democratic party, affirmed the state party’s stance against Amendment 2 in a statement.

“Amendment 2 will hurt Mineral County immensely,” Armentrout said. “It will just end up being more tax giveaways to out-of-state corporations at the expense of our public schools, police, fire fighters, EMTs, buses, and libraries.

“The measure isn’t the tax break that legislators are portraying, said Armentrout in the statement, but “something that will hurt our county budgets immediately and over the long run, and we can’t let that happen if we want to make sure that Mineral County continues to be a good and safe place to live and work.”

Manufacturers support

Rebecca McPhail, director of the state Manufacturers Association, said the organization supports Amendment 2’s potential to attract hesitant businesses to West Virginia, as well as retain ones that are considering leaving.

McPhail called the property taxes a “penalty for capital investment, and places West Virginia as one of the ten worst states in the nation for taxation on capital intensive manufacturing.”

“In a county like Mineral, the loss of one significant business could be devastating to local revenues,” McPhail said. “If passed, Amendment 2 opens the door to economic development for struggling West Virginia counties and can stabilize revenue sources while stimulating investment and retention among West Virginia businesses.”

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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