(03/19/2001)
Reprinted from the Sunday Gazzette Mail (03/18/01)

By Scott Finn

Two sheriff's deputies may have to go in Lincoln County. The fire departments and community centers in Clay County will have to start paying their own utility bills. County employees can forget about their annual cost-of-living pay raise in Mason County.

Putnam and Fayette counties have made news recently with budget and hiring freezes. But all over West Virginia, many county governments are being squeezed, according to Patti Hamilton of the West Virginia Association of Counties. The cost of health insurance and jails is going up while the amount of money coming in remains stagnant, she said.

Hamilton is reluctant to use the term "unfunded mandate," but she says the Legislature asks counties to pick up the bill for regional jails and space for the family court system.

"We have to pay the bills for these things, yet in many instances we are given no additional money to deal with them," Hamilton said.

Lincoln County Commissioner Charles McCann can rattle off a litany of increased expenses. Insurance rates jumped 40 percent in one year for Lincoln County employees. A federal grant to pay for police protection runs out in June, and two of the county's 10 deputies may be laid off. The heating system in the 40-year-old courthouse eats up $15,000 in maintenance costs every year.

McCann says the county may have to lay off four or five people in July. He hates to have to choose between county workers and decent buildings and equipment.

"We decided a year ago to computerize the courthouse, and that cost us $100,000," McCann said. "It's hard to decide between that and somebody's job, but we felt we had to do it."

Five county employees in Clay County could get pink slips because of a decline in coal severance taxes, says County Commissioner Tim Butcher.

Taxes from coal in Clay County are expected to drop from $300,000 last year to only about $50,000 this year. Butcher blames the budget crunch on the closing of two mining operations.

The county used to pay the utilities and some insurance costs for community centers and volunteer fire departments, but no more, Butcher said.

"When we had money, we spread it around the county. But we can't do that now," he said.

Mason County Administrator John Gerlach is hoping he won't have to lay off any county employees. He doesn't think he'll have to, but raises are out of the question, he said. Putnam County is expecting a decline in revenue from last year, the first time that's happened in the growing county in at least a decade. Deputy sheriffs won a $550,000 lawsuit last fall, and water and sewer projects ended up costing the county more than expected. Putnam County responded with a hiring and spending freeze and cuts to libraries and parks.

Fayette County commissioners froze all unnecessary spending and hiring last week, blaming declining coal severance taxes and decreasing tax income from timberland.

Boone, Jackson and Roane county officials all report tight budgets, but say they can operate at the same level as last year. Boone County actually had an increase in coal severance taxes, partly because the price of coal is going up, says County Commissioner J.M. Protan.

The Legislature recently changed how taxes are collected on both coal and timberland, Hamilton said, a double whammy for some rural counties. She plans to compile a "State of the Counties" report to see which counties are taking a hit and what can be done to help them.

To contact staff writer Scott Finn, use e-mail or call 357-4323.


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