|COMMENT by Bob Weaver|
The down-side to increasing efforts to make metro government easier in West Virginia is the ganging-up of metro areas against rural areas.
After ten years as a Calhoun commissioner, red flags with financial mandates increase each year making it more difficult for rural counties to remain automonous.
Currently, the WV legislature, using a voice vote which disallows detection of how delegates and senators vote, changed the law to allow a simple majority of voters to approve county-city consolidation.
Politicans carefully avoid the consolidation word, because it does not set well with most voters in WV.
The current bill is directed toward Kanawha County creating a metro government.
The squeeze on rural counties is simple.
Calhoun County, which has been able to maintain some of the lowest tax rates in the nation, rural counties just can't keep up paying the bills the State of West Virginia says they must pay with a low tax base.
Calhoun commissioners, just completed the budget process, was faced with the loss of $45,000 from the state's synfuel tax and a 12% increase in health benefits, resulting in an additional $25,000 cost to the county.
Then there are mandates to pay for computer networking and programming, amounting this year to $30,000, some years amounting to twice that.
The state requires county audits, once part of the state's cost of operation, now an ever increasing cost from about $2,500 annually ten years ago to an amount in excess of $12,000.
Balancing a budget has become more of a challenge.
This year, the county's elected officials helped out by actually reducing their tight budgets 2% at the request of the commission.
Perhaps the most embarrasing issue for county commissioners is not having extra money left to actually help local projects or
For example, after accepting a request from the Calhoun County Park Board for $5,000 just to help pay basic utilities, the request was dropped in order to balance the budget.
Hopefully, the commission will find some excess funds during 2009-2010 to help the park.
Commissioners are required by law to balance the county budget within 3%, or the State of West Virginia can seize the commissioners property.
Of course state and federal officials are not held to such standards and can deficit spend until hell freezes over.
In West Virginia, the push has been on for years to consolidate counties and their school boards, based on a need for efficiency and saving money.
There is little evidence that consolidations save money, and when big counties are consolidated with little counties, those low tax rates go by the wayside.
That push, under the current economic collapse, will be getting pushier.
Despite local politics or perceptions, it is notable that Calhoun's commssioners and elected officials have "bit the bullet" for county citizens, based upon a philosophy that bigger is not always better.
Proponents of metro government say it makes government more efficient because communities pool their resources. They also say the looming 2010 census means passage is crucial, as Charleston would lose major federal grants once its population drops below 50,000.
Opponents counter that the setup would infringe on smaller communities' autonomy and voice in local matters.
Walters said he's attended dozens of town meetings with residents of small communities who oppose the idea: "It's an issue of fairness."
Many people have moved out of cities to "avoid certain things," like taxes and "government they didn't want to be overseeing them," Walters said.
If Charleston needs to maintain its population to keep federal grant funding, he said, it could do that by annexation or city-to-city mergers, he said. He also said it was unfair that the bill only applies to Kanawha County.
The Legislature passed the law on metro government in 2006. Some lawmakers say the 55-percent threshold was enacted to protect rural residents; others say it was chosen arbitrarily.
Delegate Nancy Guthrie, D-Kanawha, spoke in favor of the bill throughout the meeting, and told delegates the legislation was urgent for her area.
"I know none of you have much in this," she said.
The bill passed on a voice vote, meaning individual votes could not be determined. It now goes to the full House for a vote.
Charleston Area Alliance President Matt Ballard said he was "very pleased" the legislation got over another hurdle.
Without a city of 50,000 people, he said, West Virginia will lose out when businesses are considering where to locate.
"This bill is about economic development," he said.
Reach Alison Knezevich at
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