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County budget cuts decried

CHARLES TOWN – A plan by the Jefferson County Commission to slash funding for the arts, libraries and parks drew an outpouring of protest from community leaders who said the cuts would cripple their programs.

The commission is scheduled to approve its final budget at meetings Thursday and Friday.

[cleeng_content id=”865820290″ description=”Read it now!” price=”0.49″ t=”article”]Speakers painted a bleak picture of the possible outcomes from budget cuts: a growing achievement gap between the county’s lower-income and wealthy children, the death of all the ash trees in Morgan’s Grove Park, some children unable to participate in youth baseball and residents with less access to emergency medical care.

Commission President Walt Pellish said in making the cuts the county was paying the price for past commissions’ irresponsibility – pointing in particular, as several commissioners did, to the 2007 decision to use revenue from gambling to fund regular expenses.

“The chickens have come home to roost,” Pellish said. “We cannot continue to live the way we have been living. Prior administrations made a major error when they started allocating casino revenues from slots and table games and allowed those funds to flow into the general revenue of Jefferson County. That should never, never have been done.”

Financial Director Tim Stanton said taxes collected on table games and video lottery had declined precipitously in the past year by about $1.5 million, a consequence of flagging business at Hollywood Casino, which has been rocked by the opening of new competitors in Maryland.

Stanton also laid much of the blame at the feet of the accounting system counties are required by the state to use. Under that system, all of the county’s leftover cash is rolled into the next year’s budget and treated like ordinary revenue.

“The counties roll forward their entire fund balance, which is their entire net worth, and then have to come up with a budget that nets zero,” he said. “Any accountant in the room tonight will realize that that organization is insolvent at the end of the fiscal year.”

The state-mandated accounting system also acts to hide from ordinary citizens the real financial health of the county, he said.

“This method of budgeting that is required by the state of West Virginia is a very, very nontraditional style of budgeting,” he said. “You artificially inflate your revenue by carrying forward your fund balance. On the spending side of the budget, you artificially inflate your expenditures in trying to conserve your fund balance.”

He said Jefferson County has been in financial trouble for a few years, relying on an ever-diminishing supply of savings from prior years and each year having less of those savings to roll over and treat as revenue.

Stanton said the budgeting system required by the state does not provide for transparency to the public.

“Because of this nontraditional method of budgeting, I would not expect anyone in the county, other than a seasoned accounting professional, to pick up on the fact that over the years we’ve been having issues with the fund balance.”

He said even auditors have failed to notice the problem with the county’s fund balances.

Stanton said large cuts in many areas of the budget were required to keep the county’s reserve funds from deteriorating further – a total of $3.3 million. This is short of the $3.9 million he has previously said would be necessary to restore the size of the reserve to its recommended level of around 17 percent.

The Commission has provisionally approved cutting appropriations for ambulance service by 20 percent, reducing distributions for volunteer fire companies by 12.5 percent, slashing the budgets for the Arts and Humanities Alliance and the Historic Landmarks Commission by 50 percent, cutting libraries by 15 percent, providing no new vehicles for the Sheriff’s Department in 2015, and reducing by a quarter funds provided to the PanTran bus service.

Under the provisional budget, two full-time positions are cut from the Planning and Zoning Department, five-and-a-half are expected to be cut from the Jefferson County Emergency Services Agency, one position is cut from the Jefferson County Development Authority and one position is cut from Parks and Recreation.

A health savings account system for county employees would be eliminated next year.

The budget also proposes that 911 fees be increased to $5, and funding for the free landfill drop-off day will be eliminated.

Agency representatives who spoke to commissioners said the cuts would have crippling effects to their ability to continue operating.

Public library representatives said cuts there will be effectively doubled because the library uses county funds to obtain one-to-one matching grants.

Lillian Bauer, children’s librarian at Shepherdstown Library, said that the long-term impact of cuts to the county’s libraries would fall largely on the shoulders of low-income children.

She said reducing library funding would force them to reduce their hours, depriving low-income children of access to educational materials.

“Sixty-one percent of low-income families do not have age-appropriate books for their children,” she said. “That’s zero books in their house. The way that we can bridge that gap is by introducing them to books before they start school. And the way that we can do that is by providing free access to books at our local libraries.”

Martin Burke, who heads up the Historic Landmarks Commission said a 50 percent reduction would leave that organization unable to pay insurance on the properties it owns, and would cause it to stop maintenance on all of them.

Ginny Fite, president of the Arts and Humanities Alliance, said slashing funding for that organization would mean big cuts for the roughly $20,000 they distribute in grants to teachers, artists and arts organizations each year.

“The arts are a tourism and economic driver,” she said. “Every dollar we grant comes back to the county twice over from people who spend money in shops, restaurants, hotels and gas stations. In a sense, AHA pays for itself.”

Arthur Weinberg of the Shepherdstown Community Club, which owns Morgan’s Grove Park but relies on the county parks department to maintain it, said cuts to it could leave the group unable to take action to save the 91 ash trees, including the third largest in the state, that grow there.

The trees are currently being attacked by a pest called the Emerald Ash Borer, he said, but they could be saved if they receive a treatment that injects insecticides into the trees’ bark.

“It threatens to kill all of the ash trees in Morgan’s Grove Park,” he said.

It is expected to cost $17,000, money he said could only be provided by the county.

Jeffrey Bayless, vice president of the Summit Point Babe Ruth League, said the reductions could make it impossible for his organization to continue allowing low-income children who are unable to pay their fees to play.

“We let these individuals come and play because we don’t want to be turning children away, but if we can’t maintain our parks and I have to raise my fees because my fees are raised, then we’re going to deprive all of these children of the opportunity to play,” he said.

Alan Williams, president of the JCESA board, said the organization saw the proposed cuts – which come on the heels of a commission decision to radically change the composition of the organization’s board – as an attack.

“The actions taken by [the commission] to cut the JCESA by 20 percent are punitive and perceived as vindictive,” he said, saying that the cuts would force three EMTs to be pulled out of county fire stations.

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