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Jefferson County offers most bang for buck

By TIM COOK

The Journal

CHARLES TOWN, W.Va.  — Jefferson County has the most favorable cost of living among the 55 counties in West Virginia, and Berkeley County has the third-most favorable cost of living in the state.

That’s the local “purchasing power” assessment of SmartAsset, a company in New York City that offers various online financial software calculators, including a community cost-of-living calculator.

From 2015 data, Jefferson County’s average annual cost of living and median income were calculated to be $40,219 and $66,677, respectively. That household expense and income differential — theoretically amounting to a 75.07 percent ratio of average household purchasing power — put the county at the top of the state’s most favorable cost of living.

Meanwhile, Putnam and Berkeley counties were ranked second and third most favorable in West Virginia. Putnam had an annual cost of living estimated at $37,776 and an average household income of $56,774, giving it a 67 percent purchasing-power ratio, according to SmartAsset’s rankings. Berkeley had an annual cost of living estimated at $37,300 and household income of $55,239, with a 66.5 percent ratio in purchasing power.

Also close by, Morgan County is ranked as the 15th most affordable county in West Virginia as far as purchasing power is concerned, with an annual cost of living estimated at $29,756 and an average household income of $39,324.

Household income levels appeared to be the biggest factor determining West Virginia’s affordability rankings. Jefferson County had the state’s highest average household income. Putnam had the state’s second highest household income, and Berkeley the third highest, according to the company.

In addition to assessing a person’s current relative financial situation by geography, SmartAsset said its affordability index is useful for people looking for a job in new community, and it can help people negotiate a new salary that is roughly equivalent to a previous one based on a community’s general living expenses.

John Reisenweber, executive director of Jefferson County Development Authority, praised the SmartAsset ranking, saying local affordability is an important factor for local economic growth.

“We market Jefferson County as an affordable alternative to the cost of doing business in the Washington metro area,” he said. “We have a well-skilled workforce (in Jefferson County) that is more affordable than some of the jurisdictions that we compete against.”

Among a few key factors, companies weigh a community’s overall affordability when deciding where they might locate or relocate their operations and jobs, Reisenweber said.

“They have to have access to talent,” he said. “A higher household income most likely indicates a higher level of skill and a higher level of education.”

Easy access to other economic markets; reliable transportation infrastructure; reliable water, sewer and energy; and high capacity broadband are among the other factors companies look for in communities where they want to set down operational roots, Reisenweber said.

“A lot of it is industry specific, but in general we have to check those boxes,” he added. “Broadband is critical. And it’s critical to all industry types.”

Reisenweber pointed out that Jefferson County directly competes for companies and jobs with the surrounding counties in Maryland, Virginia and Pennsylvania, particularly adjacent Loudoun County, Virginia, and Frederick County, Maryland.

SmartAsset assessed and ranked the cost of living for all of the 3,144 counties nationwide. The company determined those figures by factoring local expenses for housing, food, taxes, transportation, health care, and education and child care. It used 2015 data from the U.S. Census Bureau, the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics and an MIT Living Wage Study.

Nationwide, Jefferson County places 190th for most favorable cost of living, according to the company’s calculations. Putnam County is ranked 706th nationwide and Berkeley County is ranked the 835th most affordable. Morgan County stands at 1,858 nationally in affordability.

As expected, counties closer to Washington, D.C., generally had higher household incomes and, therefore, ranked higher in general affordability. Jefferson County is the closest West Virginia county to Washington and its affluent suburbs, and many of its residents commute to work in those jurisdictions.

Moreover, neighboring Jefferson County is Northern Virginia’s Loudoun County, which is ranked as the 57th most affordable county nationwide with a median household income of $123,453. Loudoun County is also considered to have most favorable cost of living among 95 counties in Virginia.

In contrast, neighboring Berkeley County is Washington County in Maryland, which is not appreciably closer geographically to Washington than Berkeley County. Nationally, Washington County is ranked as the 1,211th most affordable county with a median household income of $56,228. It is considered the 13th most affordable county among 24 counties in Maryland.

According to SmartAsset, the most affordable county in the nation with the highest income-to-expense purchasing power is Williamson, Tennessee, with an annual cost of living of $43,724 and an average household income of $96,565. Fort Bend, Texas, had the second most affordable position in the company’s rankings, with a $43,250 cost of living and $89,152 median income. The third highest position goes to Delaware, Ohio, with a $45,312 cost of living and $91,955 median income.

For more information, check out SmartAsset’s nationwide map of data online at https://smartasset.com/mortgage/cost-of-living-calculator#us.

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