PARKERSBURG - Mounting regional jail bills, funding needs, the homestead exemption are all on the minds of Wood County officials as this year's Legislature goes into session.
"Statewide, I think the regional jail bills remain a concern. We also want to continue to find ways to help our fire departments. They continue to struggle for funding," said Wood County commission President Blair Couch.
The county commission association has formed a statewide committee to work on regional jail costs and related issues.
"It has impacted us greatly. These are state charges in state courts tried on state law, yet the counties have to pay for it. It just makes no sense, but we have to address it, and it continues to eat us up," Couch said.
In October, for what is reportedly the first time since its inception, the West Virginia Regional Jail Authority board announced it is lowering the daily charge for prisoner care. The change takes effect July 1, 2013, and while it's only cents, from $48.80 to $48.25, regional jail officials say it will mean savings of more than $500,000 annually for West Virginia counties.
Wood County's annual regional jail bill was around $1.8 million in 2011 and this year is more than $2 million. At the same time, the per-day care rate had risen by 3 percent, the number of arrests in the county stayed about even and the bill continued to climb. Regional bills were also the subject of local meetings called by the county commission with local court, police and diversion program officials. West Virginia prisons are at capacity and unable to house approximately 6,600 people sentenced to the West Virginia Division of Corrections facilities. To compensate for the growing population, the D.O.C. has increased its reliance on regional jails, with about 1,800 D.O.C. inmates being held in regional jail facilities in addition to the regional jail inmates already there.
Commissioner Wayne Dunn also listed jail bills among top concerns going into the new year.
"The more money we spend on the jail bill, the less we have to spend in the rest of the community," Dunn said. "The county commission association has a committee working on it. It remains to be seen how effective those efforts will be. The association hope to meet again early in January."
Animal control legislation continues to be an issue as well.
"It will continue to be a problem until the state permits us to enact a solution. They wouldn't do it two years ago. We need the state code changed to address licensing for cats. If we are going to solve this problem, counties have to be able to somehow manage cats. State code is grossly outdated relating to fees and policies. The Legislature needs to make some changes. It would solve a lot of the problems," Dunn said, noting public education and more spay and neutering programs are also part of the solution. "It's a solvable problem,. It doesn't mean everyone is going to be happy," he said.
Dick Wittberg, Mid-Ohio Valley Health Department director, has another legislative agenda.
"Hopefully an increase in the tobacco tax will be on the table this year. I don't think there would be much that would have a bigger impact on public health than an increase in the state tobacco tax. Raising the tax would bring it more in line with similar taxes in surrounding states. In and of itself raising the tobacco tax would be enough to incentivize people who are currently smoking to quit and hopefully keep kids from starting in the first place," Wittberg said.
Wood County Assessor Rich Shaffer said he would like to see lawmakers raise the homestead exemption. Qualifying residents can apply for the exemption on their owner-occupied homes. It exempts the first $20,000 of assessed value on the single residence property of the applicant. There are currently about 9,000 homestead exemptions on file in the county,
The assessor said he'd like to see the tax break for those 65 and older or totally disabled raised to $30,000. He would also like legislators to tie the increase to raises in property values.
"So those who qualify for the exemption don't have to wait for 30 years to see an adjustment. If it were tied in, as values go up, the homestead would be adjusted accordingly to keep pace. Then the Legislature would not have to act on it to have it make a difference," Shaffer said. "There were at least three bills introduced last year."
But while Wood County can sustain that loss of revenue, some counties could not afford an increase in the homestead, and Shaffer said that's probably why past proposals have failed.
"I'd also love to see the personal property tax eliminated. I've been an advocate of that for years, and I think someday it will happen. West Virginia is one of the few states that still has property tax on personally owned vehicles. But the state would have to find some other source of revenue to make it up," Shaffer said.