County raises tax rate
by PHILLIP WILLIAMS
Aug 21, 2014 | 1748 views | 4 4 comments | 14 14 recommendations | email to a friend | print
Upshur County Commissioners Court voted 3-2 Friday to raise the county tax rate by 4.43 cents per $100 valuation after voting 3-1 to approve an $11.6 million budget for the 2014-15 fiscal year.

The court raised the tax rate from the current 52.23 cents per $100 valuation to 56.66 cents. That came after Pct. 1 Commissioner Paula Gentry’s motion to approve County Judge Dean Fowler’s recommendation to increase it to 57.66 cents died for lack of a second.

Gentry joined Pct. 4 Commissioner Mike Spencer and Pct. 3 Commissioner Frank Berka in approving the 4.43-cent hike, which Spencer said is effectively a 6.5 percent tax increase. Pct. 2 Commissioner Hefner and Fowler voted against it.

Fowler called The Mirror afterward to explain, “I just wanted to say the reason that I voted no is because I believe that the court should have adopted the entire proposed rate. But I do appreciate the commissioners’ hard work and the negotiations and the discussion that occurred today.”

Fowler said he believed the county needed more in reserve funds than the 56.66-cent rate will provide. On Monday, he added that his originally proposed budget would have provided $774,000 in reserves, but that the rate which was approved will provide about $240,000.

When he proposed the tax hike recently, Fowler said that if the county had an emergency, it had no funds to cover it.

After the judge contacted the newspaper Friday, Spencer called The Mirror and said, “We were able to negotiate a tax rate that was lower than the proposed tax rate.”

All commissioners but Hefner voted to approve the more than $11.6 million budget, which provides longevity-based annual pay raises of up to $1,200 for all employees except three in the Road and Bridge Department, and for all elected officials except the four commissioners.

They are the first raises for most county employees in about eight years.

Workers will receive $150 for each year they have worked for the county, up to a maximum of $1,200, while elected positions will receive $1,200.

Before approving the final total budget, the court voted 2-1 to include the pay raises in it. Spencer and Hefner approved the motion, Gentry opposed it and Berka abstained.

Gentry said Monday “I voted no because road and bridge (workers, who almost all received a pay raise in the new budget) got a substantial raise last year” when nobody else did. Gentry, who proposed the longevity-based raises for other employees, said, “I was trying to do a happy medium.”

The proposed tax hike had brought protests from two citizens, David Watts Jr. and John Melvin Dodd, at a more than hour-long public hearing preceding the vote. Another citizen, Ron Cook, said he favored raising taxes, while a handful of others asked questions and/or made comments which did not indicate whether they supported the tax hike..

Dodd said some citizens are “already in dire straits” and that a tax increase would cause “incredible problems.” He argued some taxpayers would be “hurt tremendously,” being forced to cut their food budget and perhaps having to live without air conditioning and heating.

He also said a family which bought 105 acres in the county must sell the property because “there’s no way in the world they can pay the taxes.” He asked the court to cut expenses “somewhere” instead.

Watts, who unsuccessfully sought the Republican Party nomination for state land commissioner earlier this year, told the court Fowler’s proposed tax hike represented “potentially a 10 percent increase” in the rate, and that it would raise 10.43 percent more revenues than last year. He charged such a budget would be “obscene.”

He said that two years ago, he had talked to Fowler about a tax increase which was approved then, and “I was assured repeatedly it was temporary. It was not,” Watts said, charging there is now a “lack of credibility.”

The county’s tax rate was about 42 cents per $100 valuation in 2009, and since then, the county has increased the adopted tax rate four straight years prior to this one, Watts said. “I urge you to vote no” on the tax hike, he told the court.

Hefner said the court is drawing extra revenue from new properties. He also asked Watts what the court should do when oil and gas revenues “plummet? Take deputies off the street?”

Watts replied that four years of tax rate and revenue hikes were “enough.”

County Auditor Brandy Lee said the court once used reserve funds to keep tax rates low, “but now we have no more reserves.”

Hefner added that annual revenues from justice of the peace courts, and from housing jail inmates from outside the county, have dropped more than $1 million. Meantime, the court has “radically cut expenses,” spends less per citizen than Wood and Gregg counties, “and we have no debt,” added Hefner.

Berka maintained the court had provided “good stewardship,” and that further cuts would be insignificant. In addition, he said, “We’ve not built any reserves.” Berka said Fowler’s proposed tax rate would take five years to build $3.5 million in such funds, and “(We) owe it to our county to be solvent, to be prepared.”

Noting that Upshur’s budget items had been “drastically cut,” and that neighboring Wood County’s budget is $18 million, Berka added, “It’s not that we have a spending problem. Not now. We did (before). . .We (now) have a revenue problem.”

As for having reserve funds to cover potential emergencies, Watts said “interest rates are at a historic low” if the county needed to borrow money. He said the court was telling citizens, “We should take money out of your pocket for a maybe.”

But Berka said the county had gotten in trouble when it borrowed money.

Concerning Watts’ statement that he had been told the tax hike in 2012 would be temporary, Hefner said capital murder cases had arisen that the court had to fund the next year.

When Watts suggested that the court might tap into any reserves, Berka said Wood County had $9.1 million of such funds, and that Van Zandt County is in trouble because “their people don’t want them to raise taxes.”

Watts replied, “You’re going to have to reduce spending further.” When Berka asked how, Watts suggested paring funding for employees’ health insurance, not giving pay raises this year, and building reserves slowly.

Watts also said there should be other ways to raise revenues than ad valorem taxes.

Dodd added, “We need industry” to bring in revenue. He said the court should work on that.

Spencer said he was embarrassed at the county’s financial situation, but that “we got wrong information” on its financial status in the past and “it just keeps biting us in the rear.”

“We’re playing catch-up,” said Spencer. Reiterating Hefner’s point that revenue from justice of the peace courts and housing out-of-county inmates had declined. Spencer said tax revenue was the only source of funding the court could control.

“Where can you come up with a million or two (in) cuts?” he continued, saying he had looked. As far as pay raises, “We are way behind on that. . .(We) sure can’t hire competent people” under current pay, Spencer argued.

When Jimmy Caughron asked how a tax increase would affect senior citizens, Fowler said taxes would increase on their property other than their homesteads.

Fowler then addressed Watts’ statement that the proposed tax hike would raise 10.43 percent more revenues. The judge said that under regulations, he thought that figure was the clearest way to explain it, but that the state comptroller’s calculation was that Fowler was recommending a tax hike of slightly below 8 percent.

Gentry cited several years when Upshur’s tax rate dropped, saying “It does go down.”

“This year, there is no debt. We paid off our loans. We’re climbing out of the hole,” Gentry argued.

Citing criminal justice-related costs, she added that “there are a lot of things that we can’t control.”

Berka cited legallyrequired costs the county must pay for indigent health care. Watts responded that everyone in the room had costs they had no control over.

When Watts’ wife, Desiree Watts, said it seemed like no one wanted to talk about bringing revenue into the county, Berka pointed out the court had granted a tax abatement to one new industry (near Ore City.)

Hefner added, “I have a problem with taking your money by force” and giving a check to business to come into the county. He also said the county has an economic development corporation.

Spencer returned to the matter of current spending, saying it is “not out of control.” Hefner then said the court had cut $2 million from the budget in the past, and Gentry said the county spent $68,517 on prisoner medical costs, not counting more than $39,000 for their prescriptions. (By law, the county must pay those costs.)

In addition, Spencer said valuations on which the tax rate is based had dropped, and he would like to know why. He further said taxpayers could “pay a little bit now or a lot later.”

In discussing pay raises, Jordan asserted that he “can’t find people to fill positions” in the Road and Bridge Department, which he said is four or five employees short.

He additionally said “anybody worth their salt” is going to work in the oil field or elsewhere.

Said Gentry, “We’re losing good people. . .We can’t hire people.”

When the court raised the issue of exempting Jordan and two of his workers from the pay raises, he said he would forgo raising his pay, but that he had a problem with the fact that the only two employees not receiving raises were in his department.

When Harris pointed out that Road and Bridge employees got a raise last year, and nobody else did, Jordan said, “I’m still behind.”

Once the public hearing ended and the court took a recess during its nearly 3 1/2-hour meeting, commissioners acted to name East Mountain police officer Mark Nichols as the county’s emergency management officer. He will also remain as a city police officer, and Fowler said the city of East Mountain had agreed to let him use its vehicle, gasoline and work partly on the city’s time.

Comments
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David Watts
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August 24, 2014
I find the fact that we raised pay for elected officials to be astounding. It was argued that we must increase pay for county employees, as we are at risk of losing them. But the pay raise proposal that passed included pay-raises for elected officials as well (except for County Commissioners). Nobody was crying about the risk of losing elected officials... I consider this an example of bait and switch.

But here's where insult is added to injury:

County employees get $150 for every year of continuous service, up to a maximum of $1200 for 8 years of service.

But an elected official gets the full $1200 immediately. In office 1 year? 2 years? 3 years? Doesn't matter. Elected officials get the full $1200.

Amazing... Most people believe politicians cut sweet-heart deals for themselves... and we just proved that they do.
Joe Mumford
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August 22, 2014


This is the response you get from Upshur county commissioner . when you ask the following:

Did you not vote for the tax increase? btw way the same judge that lied about the so call temporary tax hike.

Have the roads gotten any attention?

Has there been any improvements for fire protection?

Has there been any thing done about the illegals moving in to the county?

Has there been any plans set up to try and get any business set up in the county ?

His response:

"I have asked you repeatedly to come by and visit with me. You continually espouse negatives, (never anything positive), because you do not have the info. that is necessary to make statements, one way or the other. I am finding out more and more that the citizens don't do any homework. They just repeat what someone else says, or some just like to hear themselves. Again, please come by so we can talk. "

Sounds like we have a talker and no doer if you ask me, So I am uninformed?

Well let's see here: Roads.. I drive them every damn day. Very shitty workmanship and for the most part very little service. The road I live on is turning back into gravel in places, The road is so damn ruff it jars your I-teeth out.

Fire service, Every house that has caught on fire, THAT I DRIVE BY EVERY DAY is nothing but a burned out shells.. that is right that is all that is left.

Illegals.. have move in up the road.. Drive by it every day!

Set up or attract business to the county? again drive by empty building every day?

But YET I AM UNINFORMED? Really? I sent our so called Road and Bridge department a email here the other day.. As what kind of plans do they have on repairing the roads.. Did I get a answer? HELL NO!

But yet I AM UNINFORMED.. Really? I guess I could sell out to an ILLEGAL as that is what is moving into this county ,, as no one wants to live here and no one wants to start a business here,, But yet, they raise the taxes, after being a liar about the temporary increase two damn years ago.

But then again I am UNIMFORMED...

It might be time to form a citizen action committee .. ? What do you all think?

JOE MUMFORD
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August 22, 2014
I did get a response from one of our elected county officials ,, I did receive one piece of good news,

There have been some roads repaired, which was great to hear, But in the end I was accused of being uninformed..

Here is my response:

Well I got a response,, and I knew I would ,, But truthfully some were good, and some of the roads have had some repairs, but not of which I travel, I also got the excuse that there is 600 miles of roads and WE ONLY PAY ENOUGH IN TAXES TO REPAIR 17 MILES OF IT A YEAR.. so I would call that excuse number 1.

Joe Mumford I really like this one,,, Do you remember that the citizens voted to take roads away from the Commissioner's responsibility? But go to the Road and Bridge web page,, look at the Sub division Road. scroll down .. Item number 7. on second page,,, Oil Dirt Pavement: Oil dirt shall only be allowed with prior expressed approval of COMMISSIONERS Court, on page 1 there is this one: Completed base shall be approved by the county Engineer or other person. Designated by COMMISSIONERS Court prior to placement of ANY SURFACE materials.

Joe Mumford This is the good news: Do you know that Hackberry, Lindsey, Catalba, Willow Oak, AppleTree and the entrance to Eldeberry have all been re-surfaced? But I do not travel those roads, but again glad those people got some work done!

Joe Mumford Do you know that if we cut 10 trees per day, it will take 4 years to cut all the dead ones? Hell If I need to I cut my own,, but I did not ask about dead trees,, excuse number 3.

Joe Mumford Do you know that the railroad crossing is a State fix, not a County fix It is not the track, it is the road leading up to the concrete .. excuse number 4. as I have seen in the past our guys fixing it! just a fact!

Joe Mumford Do you know that we gave our employees less than a 1% raise after 8 years of none? Do you know that Wood County gave theirs a 5% raise after two years of none? I do believe some of them got a raise last year. But truthfully, I see them either eating or leaning on a shovel ,, so but excuse number 5 wood county,, I do not live in wood county.

Joe Mumford Do you know that we are required to fund indigent health care up to $800,000 annually if it comes thru the door? That is part of running a county,, so who is at fault, NOT THE TAX PAYER!

Joe Mumford Do you know that we have the potential capital murder trials of 4 people that we have to provide both the prosecution and defense costs for at a possible cost over $350,000 each? Do you know that we have none, nada, zip, zero reserves for that? again that should not fall on the backs of the TAX PAYER! again falls back to mismanagement, so you all expect us to pay for it, Maybe you could check into moving them or something, again,, I did not ask about that,,

Joe Mumford Do you know that we should have $3,500,000 in reserves? Again when you run a business you need to have operating capital, which again falls back to mismanagement!

Joe Mumford I really love this one,,, Do you know that in aggregate savings, this Commissioner's court has saved the County taxpayer approx. $6,500,000 over the last 4 years? I guess that should bring up the question,, WHERE IS ALL THAT MONEY,,, because for the last two years TAXES have done nothing but increased not to mention the OVER PRICE LAND VALUES that has raised tax monies received by the county!

Joe Mumford Do you know that the fire Depts. are not paid by the County and they are not in any way controlled by the County? But as a COMMISSIONER you would think he would have said That is a cause for alarm and I will check in to that,, But again excuse number 6. also if that was true, then why is there a tax?

Joe Mumford Do you know there is a new business at Hwy 155 and 259 that committed to hiring 130 people? Do you know about the new business in Ore City that is hiring more than 80 people? Do you know about the new business at the airport that may grow into a huge success? How about DuoLine? Excuse me, I forgot how big Upshur county is,, as for as Duoline is old news,, and the new one you said it MAYBE...

Joe Mumford These, and many others are things that you should know before you make blanket statements.. Well thank you for exposing all of this wonderful and exciting news commissioner, and the excuses as well. But, I was referring to the roads I travel and what I see traveling those roads. It is your job to over see the WHOLE COUNTY not mine!

Joe Mumford and You also know all to well what roads I am talking about, as we have had several conversation about them. But in the end I guess I am the only one that has said a damn thing about them out here! As it seem to piss people off that I drive 5 mph in some areas!

Joe Mumford Humm . Last response from one of our great commissioners, Road and Bridge for your other road concerns 903.843.7623.

Guess it does not matter that in the end,, THEY DO Control what gets done with the roads.

Joe Mumford So in other words.. I might has well be pissing up a well rope!

Joe Mumford and now you see there was no reason to come and talk to you.. as it should have been the other way around. As Commissioner, you should take the time go and talk to the people of the area. They should not have to come crawling to you! as You are a elected official.

anonymous
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August 21, 2014
Maybe the people of the county should call the tax office, and set up payment arrangements, like 5 dollars per month,

see how fast your so called reserves build then.

it will be about like the road repair and fire protection we get now days. Half fu*ki*g ass.

Maybe this will wake people up, and vote out the re-runs