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State and local officials consider meals tax bill

By CHARLIE BOOTHE

Bluefield Daily Telegraph

CHARLESTON, W.Va.  — When the 2018 session of the West Virginia Legislature opens, one bill Del. John Shott (R-Mercer County) may once again try to push through is the local meals tax option.

But it will depend on support from municipal organizations.

Delegate John Shott, R-Mercer

“If the County Commissioners Association (CCAWV) and the Municipal League indicate those organizations will support it, I will,” he said. “If not, it probably has no chance of passage and I doubt I will offer it.”

Shott already has one of those organizations on his side.

The CCAWV will support it next year.

“The CCAWV supports the local meals tax option,” said Vivian G. Parsons, executive director of the association. “The proposed legislation is permissive, meaning it would be a county by county choice whether to enact a local meals tax.”

Parsons says it “gives counties another tool in their economic tool box to provide funding for county services.”

“Many counties have struggled with budget constraints over the last few years due to an overall depressed economic climate as well as the decline in the West Virginia coal industry,” she said. “CCAWV recognizes that counties need a broader revenue base to meet their financial responsibilities, including the payment of the monthly operational costs of housing inmates in the regional jails.”

“That’s welcome news,” Shott said of the CCAWV support.

The option is also supported by all Mercer County commissions, who are struggling to find ways to meet the demands of county services for residents.

Commissioner Greg Puckett said having the CCAWV behind it is needed because the county has few options in raising revenue.

“I am fully supportive (of the meals tax option) and think it is an amazing option for counties,” he said. “It is also a permissive option that allows county commissioners to adopt it or not. It makes perfect sense, but our legislature doesn’t typically look at things that make sense.”

Puckett said counties like Mercer constantly look for enough revenue to make ends meet, and to invest in economic development.

“There are only so many cuts that can be made at the local level due to our continual costs with daily operations and, of course, our jail bill,” he said. “We are limited in what we can do (to raise revenue).”

Puckett said he pitched the meals tax option to the association’s legislative committee this year hoping it will gain traction in the legislature.

“Having a prepared meals tax would be a significant jump to economic development for not only Mercer County but all counties,” he said. “This would especially be true to competing counties on borders where we are currently under the adjacent state tax. It is one of the most fair taxes that we could implement and most (revenue) would come from out-of-town patrons.”

Fellow Commissioner Gene Buckner agrees and said the meals tax would raise the most money from out-of-state patrons, especially in the restaurant-heavy area around exit 9 on I-77 in Princeton.

Buckner said that “87 percent of every prepared meal is brought from people outside our county.”

But he knows it has been uphill battle to get it.

“We’ve tried for five years to get a meals tax and they have brought it before the legislature and if fails to get on the dockets,” he said. “It would be a great help to us.”

Buckner said counties could also use the “home rule” privilege cities and towns now have in the state, which allows them some leeway in raising revenue.

Both Bluefield and Princeton have used the rule to raise the sales tax revenue.

“We are hamstrung to be able to make changes,” he said. “We can’t even offer incentives to businesses to come to the county.”

Buckner said legislators should pass the meals tax option and help provide some relief.

Commissioner Bill Archer would also like to see the county have that option.

“See what the meals tax in Bluefield, Va. has done,” he said.

That town has a 5 percent meals tax and raises about $1 million a year, according to Mayor Don Harris.

Archer said a lesser amount (tax rate) would have an impact in Mercer County, and a meals tax is basically a “volunteer tax” that “is a matter of choice.”

Another area legislator has in the past expressed support for the meals tax.

“I was on that bill and I did support it,” said Del. Joe Ellington (R-Mercer County) earlier this year. “We are trying to avoid any tax increase but if we want it, we have always promoted local control. If a particular locality wants to do that, I am in favor.”

Del. Marty Gearheart (R-Mercer County), would support it, but with a caveat.

“I’m generally not in favor of it,” Del. Marty Gearheart (R-Mercer) said, adding that he may support it, but not with a simple majority vote in the legislature, as previous bills have indicated.

“If it went to 60 (percent of the vote) I still wouldn’t be excited about it, but I would support it,” he said.

Contact Charles Boothe at [email protected]

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