By JIM McCONVILLE
MARTINSBURG, W.Va. — Finding additional revenue to cover Berkeley County’s ever growing demand on its municipal services — specifically fire fighting and EMS — served as the main theme of the Eastern Panhandle Legislative Summit held at the Eastern Regional Airport Thursday.
Berkeley County officials met with a handful of state legislators to review its slate of key legislative issues that county officials think need addressing at the next legislative session in January to ensure the region’s progress.
State legislators on hand included Sens. Craig Blair, R-District 15, Patricia Rucker, R-District 16, and Charles Trump IV, R-District 15. Also in attendance: State Dels. Jason Barrett, D-Berkeley Michael Folk, R-Berkeley and John Overington, R-Berkeley.
In his opening remarks, Berkeley County President Doug Copenhaver outlined to summit attendees what county officials see as next year’s top legislative priorities.
“On behalf of Berkeley County, which has become the economic engine of the state, we are here to make sure we get our fair tax dollars back, “Copenhaver said.
Topping the list of Berkeley County’s legislative priorities is revising the state’s property tax rollback calculation rate. Under the state’s current rate, tax revenues the county receives cannot keep pace with the county’s rising operating costs, especially for its five fire districts.
Under state law, counties can only raise their property tax rate by 3 percent in any given year, even though actual property values increase at a much higher rate.
“We lose property values so drastically, every year, over the last 10 years,”Copenhaver said. “For us to gain those tax dollars back is a struggle.”
Copenhaver said the county needs to increase its annual revenue stream to cover its escalating costs for EMS and firefighter services.
Members of the Baker Heights Volunteer Fire Company approached the council in September to ask for six paid firefighters to help shore up a volunteer squad whose firefighting workload has grown over the past few years.
Eddie Gochenour , director of the Berkeley County Homeland Security and Emergency Management appeared before the Berkeley County council last month to explain the department’s increasing difficulty in answering every fire call it receives.
In addition to Baker Heights, the county’s other fire districts include South Berkeley, Hedgesville, Bedington and Back Creek Valley.
According to Berkeley County Administrator Alan Davis, two other county fire departments are encountering the same volunteer fireman shortage.
Copenhaver told legislators the county’s fire fighter shortage is likely only to get worse, based on county’s projected population growth.
“How do we get the money to pay for firefighters to be able to provide the public safety services that we need to do by state code to the taxpayers,”Copenhaver said. “With property values going up 8-to-10 percent a year, why are we capped (with the property tax) at three percent?”
Blair told county officials that chances for the state Legislature to support a property tax rollback were very unlikely.
“I’m not arguing about it — I actually agree with what you are all trying to do,” Blair said. “But the politics of it in Charleston isn’t going to allow it to happen, because it is going to be perceived as a tax increase.”
Blair said any proposed relaxation of the state’s property tax caculation would have to part of an overall tax reform package.
“I hate to be the bad guy, but it ain’t going to happen — especially this year — unless in a tax in form of a tax package that we can do something with it where we’re dealing with personal property tax,” Blair said.
Other proposed projects laid out Thursday afternoon was for the state to designate Sportsman Paradise and Falling Waters as a state park. The county currently own 32.34 acres adjacent to the Potomac River.
Also on Berkeley County legislative wish list are providing counties “home rule,” which enable each county to draft legislation to raise county taxes, such as a 1 percent county sales tax, funding of regional jail costs and a funding mechanism for alcohol and drug recovery programs.
Blair proposed that the next Legislative Summit scheduled for Nov. 19 be held in Charleston instead of Blue Ridge Community and Technical College as had been originally scheduled.
Copenhaver said the council would consider the change in venue and get back to the senator.
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