County looks at revenue losses for 2015 budget

NEW CUMBERLAND – Hancock County’s budget for fiscal year 2015 is beginning to take shape, even as county commissioners wonder about the effects of a video lottery appropriations bill pending in the West Virginia Statehouse.

“We’re not out of the woods yet,” Hancock County Commissioner Dan Greathouse said on Monday about House Bill 4333.

The legislation, a budget-balancing measure that recently passed the House of Delegates and the Senate, cuts lottery revenue appropriations to various thoroughbred and greyhound breeders’ and purse funds by 10 percent and redirects them to the State Excess Lottery Revenue Fund.

Originally, Gov. Earl Ray Tomblin’s bill would have cut those funds by 15 percent, as well as video lottery appropriations to cities and counties. Two percent of the revenue from the video lottery slot machines at Mountaineer Casino, Racetrack & Resort goes to Hancock County commissioners, who use the money for public safety expenditures and special projects.

Commissioners also share a portion of those profits with the county’s three cities – Chester, New Cumberland, Weirton – on a per capita basis. In early February, prior to the bill being amended, commissioners said the legislation could have cost Hancock County an estimated $500,000 a year – roughly 5 percent of the county’s annual budget.

On Monday, Greathouse and Commissioner Mike Swartzmiller said even though the bill was amended to exclude cities and counties, the version that ends up before Tomblin could still affect the budgets of counties with racetracks.

Budgeting for video lottery revenues is not the “exact science” that budgeting for property taxes is, Swartzmiller said. Both revenue streams together constitute about 70 percent of the county’s $10 million annual budget – with $4 million coming from property taxes and $3 million coming from racetrack video lottery.

“The 2 percent that we get from video lottery – that’s an educated guess,” Swartzmiller said.

Annual video lottery revenues from Mountaineer to the county have dropped from $5.2 million in 2007 to $3 million in the current fiscal year – largely because of increased competition from surrounding states that have legalized gambling, Swartzmiller said.

Commissioners also receive $430,000 in table gaming revenue from Mountaineer. Except for property taxes, commissioners do not yet have firm numbers for other sources of revenue for the 2014-2015 budget.

Older revenue streams, such as ArcelorMittal Steel which owns the former Weirton Steel, are not as reliable as they used to be, Greathouse said.

“When I first became commissioner (in 1996), Weirton Steel property taxes were 50 percent of the budget,” he said.

“The hardest part is going to be on the revenue side,” Swartzmiller said.

Another declining revenue source, according to commissioners, is the hotel occupancy tax, which has gone down from $465,000 in 2009 to $200,000 in the current fiscal year. Commissioners are suing Mountaineer over its practice of not collecting the state’s 6 percent hotel occupancy tax on complimentary rooms, which they say has cheated the county out of more than $500,000 in the past several years.

Commissioners spent Monday afternoon learning about the expenditure side from department heads, including Hancock County Circuit Court Clerk Brenda Jackson, Hancock County Prosecutor Jim Davis, Hancock County Clerk George Foley and Hancock County Assessor Joseph Alongi.

Commissioners also received a budget request from Fred P. McDonald, executive director of the Northern Panhandle Community Criminal Justice Board. The Weirton-based agency administers the Lee Day Report Center, as well as the home incarceration and pre-trial release programs.

Because the three programs keep offenders out of the regional jail system, the Criminal Justice Board has saved Hancock County $325,861 in incarceration costs so far this fiscal year, McDonald said. It costs the county $48.25 a day to house someone at the Northern Regional Jail in Moundsville.

For fiscal year 2015, which begins on July 1, commissioners have budgeted $570,000 for regional jail incarceration costs. That number used to be closer to $1 million, Swartzmiller said.

“We’ve been pleased at the savings,” Swartzmiller told McDonald. “I attribute that to your program.”

On Monday, commissioners learned that Foley’s budget request for fiscal year 2015 is higher because the Clerk’s Office oversees the elections, and this year is expected to be a busy off-year election season.

Commissioners also are looking at the possibility of replacing the county’s 87 polling machines, although not immediately.

“That’s just a fact of life we’re going to have to look at soon,” Greathouse said. “That’s a big-ticket item.”

(Huba can be contacted at shuba@reviewonline.com)