Brooke commission cuts budget

WELLSBURG – Expecting a major drop in revenue and increases in health coverage for its employees, the Brooke County Commission has budgeted $6.6 million for the upcoming fiscal year, a drop from the $7.1 million it had budgeted for this year.

“It’s probably the lowest budget Brooke County’s had in 10 years,” said Tim Ennis, the commission’s president, after the board approved it at Tuesday’s meeting.

Ennis said as it met with the county’s department heads, the commission struggled to balance declining revenue with rising costs. He noted while the budget must be submitted to the state Auditor’s Office by March 28, it may be amended afterward.

Ennis said he hopes to work with the auditor’s office to address its funding shortfall.

The commissioners said they have budgeted for a $562,000 carryover from the current fiscal year that it may not actually see and the amount includes the county’s $335,000 contingency fund.

County Assessor Tom Oughton confirmed assessed property values, which affect property tax received by the county, have dropped by about $165,000, much of it as a result of lost industries, such as Wheeling-Pittsburgh Steel, or struggling ones with lesser inventory.

Ennis said fees paid by the county for criminal offenders it sends to the Northern Regional Jail also is a factor. He said while $300,000 was budgeted for them in the current fiscal year, the county will have paid more than $400,000 when it has ended.

Ennis said coal severance funds shared with the state to counties have diminished in recent years and are projected at about $42,000 next year.

The commissioners are looking forward to new revenue generated by the natural gas industry but that’s not expected to occur for a few years.

Though many residents have signed leases with natural gas companies, it’s claimed as part of their income and not taxed by the county. The county isn’t expected to see a significant boost until the wells are producing and the properties’ values are reassessed.

“We’re two to three years from where we’ll see a little light,” said County Commissioner Jim Andreozzi.

“We’re not there yet, and we can’t spend money we don’t have,” said Ennis.

Andreozzi said under the Affordable Care Act, the commission also expects to see an increase of about $300,000 in health coverage for its 68 full-time employees if it continues to cover their premiums.

In 2012 the commission adopted a policy requiring all new employees and newly elected officials to contribute 20 percent of their health coverage.

The move was intended to introduce employee contributions without penalizing long-time employees. County Clerk Sylvia Benzo said many courthouse staff members have worked 10 years there and don’t make $10 per hour.

The new policy hasn’t had a major impact anyway because the commission also cut the budget last year, resulting in fewer full-time hirings.

The commissioners said they plan to bring in representatives of the Health Plan, the county’s insurance provider, to discuss options with them and the employees.

The county commission was asked whether it’s considering cuts in employees or services.

“Hopefully we won’t have to cut the workforce. Everything’s got to be on the table when you’re looking at that kind of revenue (loss),” Andreozzi said.

The sheriff’s department, county tax office and county clerk’s and assessor’s office are among those the commission legally is required to fund. The ambulance service, Brooke County Library and others receive county funds solely through its ambulance excess levy, not from the general fund.

The county’s animal shelter and museum are among those in the general budget that aren’t required legally.

The commissioners said closing the two would eliminate some costs but the commission still would be responsible for insuring and maintaining the buildings and both play important roles in the community.

The Business Development Corp. of the Northern Panhandle and Weirton Transit Corp. are non-county entities that receive funds from the county. The BDC receives $30,000 per year and the WTC receives $5,000.

Those funds come from a fund reserved for economic development and established with in lieu of tax payments from rue21, the first business to open at the Three Springs Industrial Park.

Andreozzi said the county’s own economic development authority has received various amounts of funding over the years, from $20,000 on down, but received nothing last year, relying on past funding only.

Ennis said despite the present financial crunch, it would have been much worse, had former commissioners Bernie Kazienko and Marty Bartz and fellow commissioner Norma Tarr not approved earlier budget cuts in recent years.

(Scott can be contacted at wscott@heraldstaronline.com)