(06/29/2001)
Wednesday June 27, 2001

Wirt Residents Can't Rely On Government Help

State action to pump in $70,000 to keep Wirt County government operating comes as a huge relief to seven full-time courthouse workers as well as elected officials who need not lay them off now and pick up the slack.

Made available today in the Budget Digest, the money buys time for all concerned to see if the state's smallest county can stand on its own.

That remains an open question.

Wirt has only 5,873 souls, no four-lane highways, and scarcely any industry besides a life-jacket manufacturer employing 120 in the county seat of Elizabeth and a few sawmills scattered in the countryside.

Citizens grateful for the unusual subsidy can thank state Sen. Donna Boley, R- Pleasants, who pestered ruling Democrats about Wirt's plight all year.

But it won't happen again. Policies made in Charleston have given rise to all manner of local government fiscal disorders. The state can't afford itself, much less bailouts of counties and cities.

More money won't come from local taxpayers either, if excess levy elections held last May and November are indicative. Twice by 2-to-1 margins the people declined to vote themselves the equivalent of a $50 annual tax hike on a typical home

The $10,000 price tag on a special election virtually rules out another decision on an excess levy until next May's primary.

If money grew on trees, heavily forested Wirt would be in tall clover. But cash is not going to float down from the heavens.

Now there's a wistful hope it may come from the other direction.

A man knowledgeable about area oil and gas developments is aware of plans for at least two deep gas wells, one over the Burning Springs anticline and the other about 10 miles west on a basement fault. Alvin Engelke, who also serves as county Division of Highways supervisor, said surveying has been done and he is confident drilling will commence.

It will cost a minimum of $2 million per well to find out if there's gas nearly two miles down in the Trenton/Black River carbonate formations.

Columbia Natural Resources found it there near Looneyville in neighboring Roane County in 1999 at the Parker well, which is producing enormous quantities of gas and $62,680 in county revenue in tax year 2001.

At least five other deep wells in Roane have hit paydirt and will go on the tax rolls next year.

"If these deep wells pan out in Wirt County, there's light at the end of the tunnel," Engelke said.

More light, surely, than in 1863 when Confederate cavalry stormed through the oil boom town of Burning Springs, estimated population 6,000, and burned it to the ground.

Things may look daunting today, but Wirt County certainly has gone through worse.


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