Panel anticipates more budget cuts

WELLSBURG – The Brooke County Commission is anticipating more budget cuts as it juggles declining revenue and rising costs.

Prior to Tuesday’s meeting, Tim Ennis, the commission’s president, said the county has seen a $165,000 drop in taxes, primarily from local industries, and expects a $250,000 drop in its unencumbered balance from last year.

He said the commission also faces a 15 percent increase in health coverage for its employees and a steady rise in jail fees paid by the county for criminal offenders it sends to the Northern Regional Jail.

“We budgeted for $300,000 (for jail fees) this year but will have paid more than $400,000,” Ennis said.

He said the gap between revenue and expenses in the new fiscal year could be close to $1 million.

Citing similar concerns, the commission cut the county’s budget from $8.3 million to $7.1 million last year.

Cuts of 15 percent to the county clerk’s and county assessor’s offices led the state Auditor’s Office to express concern, but Ennis said the commission was able to alleviate those concerns.

County Clerk Sylvia Benzo said cuts to her office’s budget were in capital outlay, funds designated for equipment and materials.

County Assessor Tom Oughton said his cut was offset by an increase in the assessor’s valuation fund, another line item.

Ennis said the departments are among a handful the county commission is required to fund under the state Constitution. He noted there are many others, such as the animal shelter, museum and Weirton Transit Corp., that it’s not legally required to fund but that serve the public.

Ennis said if the commission is faced with cutting constitutionally required departments, it also should consider cutting county entities and outside agencies that are not.

“Everybody is being considered for cuts,” he said.

Ennis said the situation underscores the need for public support of the county’s excess levy, which funds the ambulance service, local libraries, senior center and many other entities. Renewal of the levy and another for the county’s fire departments will be on ballots in the May 13 primary election.

County commissioners have been working with Benzo and other department heads to finalize the 2014-15 budget for submission to the auditor’s office by March 28.

On Tuesday the commissioners joined other county commissions in the Northern Panhandle in signing a resolution calling for the state Legislature to allocate at least 2 percent of the gross value of natural gas and natural gas liquids produced in the state to the counties where they originate.

The money would go into a Gas County Reallocated Severance Tax Fund to be used solely for economic development and infrastructure projects.

“We think it’s only right that counties producing natural gas should receive a larger portion, as is done with coal (revenue),” Ennis said.

Though many residents have signed leases with natural gas companies, the county doesn’t see a direct boost from that because it’s claimed as part of their income and not taxed by the county.

Ennis said the county isn’t expected to see a significant boost from the natural gas industry until royalties are paid to residents for natural gas drawn from their property, and that’s not expected to occur for a few years.

In other business, the commission:

Was advised of the hiring of Joelle Williams as a dispatcher for the emergency 911 center and resignation of Sgt. Darren Hanna from the Brooke County Sheriff’s Department. Sheriff Chuck Jackson said he plans to hire at least two, and possibly three, to fill vacancies in his department.

He said he has lost a few deputies to higher-paying jobs, some outside law enforcement.

Jackson said in an effort to cut costs, he hadn’t replaced the deputies when they left. But he said he’s found overtime paid to the other deputies outweighs savings from health coverage for the unfilled positions.

Learned the Northern Panhandle Conservation District board will perform a routine inspection of dams along Harmon Creek in Colliers at about 9 a.m. April 2 and 3.

Appointed Janet Benzo of Follansbee to the library board.

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