Wood County faces tight budget

PARKERSBURG – Wood County commissioners will begin budget talks in March.

Officials say they are facing a tight year with concerns over rising health insurance and regional jail costs that could translate into cuts to trim costs.

The 2014-2015 budget is due in Charleston by the end of March for review by West Virginia State Auditor’s Office officials. The county’s budget year is July 1 to June 30.

Wood County’s 2013-2014 total budget, after revisions, was $22 million, said county Clerk Mark Rhodes. The county has two “savings” accounts. According to finance records, the Special Building Fund contains $1,141,761 and the Financial Stabilization Fund has $1,335,128 in it.

“The total of those two funds is enough to carry the county through four years’ worth of bond payments on the Wood County Justice Center,” Rhodes said.

County Administrator Marty Seufer said the commission has sent out letters to county officials asking for their budget proposals.

The commissioners have not set budget discussion times, dates.

“I’m hoping at our next meeting, which is Monday, we can set some dates for budget discussions,” Commissioner Blair Couch said.

Wood County Assessor Rich Shaffer said the county can expect about a 1-1 1/4 percent increase in revenues this year.

“They will have a little increase to work with; as far as the valuations go, we are up a little, about 1 1/4 percent; we are working on the certification of valuations now and will have that ready for the commissioners,” Shaffer said.

“It is just a little higher than the last couple of years. The last couple of years revenues have been very flat; it’s still not much. It’s probably been 7-8 years since they’ve seen a larger increase. We have had some new construction – the auto dealerships, some new businesses that have come in; there has been some more houses built,” Shaffer said.

The assessor’s office picks up new construction after it is completed; it is appraised as of July 1, so anything assessed then then would be taxed in July 1, 2015.

“If it continues to move forward as we have seen, we should see some speculation shortly based on the Marcellus Shale, with the Cracker plant, the new purchaser of the Blue Cross Blue Shield (building) will go on the books July 1, 2014 to be taxed 2015. If they finish the UpTowner, we will get that appraised next July, that will be taxed. There is the new Hampton Inn being built at the site of the former Henry Logan Home, and a couple other buildings; there are things happening,” the assessor said. “I think we will see some growth in our county in the next few years.”

Couch said he wants to look at cutting expenses to cover obligations. He’s not in favor of raising the levy rates.

He noted the commissioners will have to address the regional jail bill which is projected to be $400,000-$500,000 over the amount of funding budgeted for those expenses. The regional jail costs were about 8 percent of Wood County’s total budget last fiscal year (2012-2013).

Couch noted there were more “robust discussions” around budget time in previous years.

“Last year was the first time I can recall not having the carryover we anticipated,” he said.

Couch said he would like to see more in-depth discussions with the county officials relating to the “big picture” of county finances and the budget.

The county projected the regional jail expenses at $2 million, but that was when the monthly bill was around $166,000. Costs now are closer to $220,000 each month. The 2012-2013 regional jail costs around $1.9 million.

“My main concern is just having enough money to pay the bills. It takes money to have the quality of life we want as a community,” Dunn said. “With the 1-2 percent increase in revenues that is expected, it’s fair to say our costs are going to be more than that and balancing the budget is going to mean cutting,” he said.

“It’s good we found some places to save. I don’t think people want us to raise the levy rate. We may have to consider it, but I don’t think we would do that unless we absolutely had to,” he said.

Dunn said officials hope next year there will be more money to work with.

“Then we may be able to start closing that gap, but we are cutting every year and you can only do that so long,” Dunn said.

The commission president noted hotel/motel revenue is up this year. But those funds are obligated to area recreation and other groups.

Some have a cap on the amount they receive. At least 50 percent of those funds must go to the Convention & Visitors Bureau.

Dunn noted revenue from building permits is up this year.

He noted the commission has not been able to give funding for employee pay raises.

“We should have money to give pay raises, as an example, but we just don’t feel like we’ve had the money to do that, and it gets a little worse every year,” he said.