Few oppose sales tax proposal


City wants to raise $1 million a year in new taxes

BUCKHANNON — Are Buckhannon city residents satisfied with staying stagnant or do they want to rise above the status quo?

The key to maintaining a high quality of life and cementing Buckhannon’s future as a gem of north central West Virginia is investing in emergency services, youth programming, recreation and infrastructure, city officials told a group of about 40 residents who’d gathered at the city’s Public Safety Complex Tuesday night.

And growing that investment will require more taxes from local residents.

City council held a public forum for the purpose of rolling out the revenue review committee’s recommendation to impose a 1 percent municipal sales and use tax and to solicit public input on the idea.

Officials have argued the city needs to add about $1 million in new taxes to its general fund for upkeep and to accommodate new growth — and that a 1 percent sales tax is the most efficient way to secure the needed money. The tax would apply to most goods sold in city limits that are already subject to the 6 percent state sales tax.

City finance and administrative director Amberle Jenkins, a member of the revenue review committee, briefed attendees on the city’s finances at the outset of the meeting, assuring those in attendance that the city has consistently been able to balance its budget.

“The reason we’re looking at revenues and expenses is because council has observed in the last five years of revenues and expenses they’re pretty much equal,” Jenkins said, adding that council wants to be proactive in pinpointing a new stream of revenue before some kind of financial crisis strikes.

Money talks

Jenkins explained exactly which areas the city hoped to invest in, saying $100,000 per year is needed for the upkeep of city parks, parking lots and cemeteries. In addition, she said the city needs another $500,000 annually to keep its streets and sidewalks in decent shape and approximately $100,000 each year in reserve for police and fire department equipment. The ever-expanding Stockert Youth and Community Center could use $70,000 more in annual revenue than it draws in, and the general fund must lend the Sewer Department $150,000 for stormwater sewer operations, which it assumed responsibility for in 2017. The Sewer Department is a separate enterprise fund and not part of the general fund.

Finally, Jenkins said $100,000 should be earmarked each year to go into the city’s municipal stabilization — or rainy day — fund, which towns typically dip into only in emergency situations. 

Fees or taxes

The revenue review committee was tasked with looking at options for both potential savings and revenue generation, but Tuesday’s meeting focused only on new taxes and fees.

Jenkins said the committee pored over the city’s income and expenses and identified two major ways to increase revenue.

The first was a multi-faceted approach, which would impose a stormwater fee, institute a first due area fire fee, increase the police fee, eliminate the $1 million business and occupation tax exemption and increase the B&O tax rate. Based on Jenkins’ calculations, make those alterations would add up to $869,000 — $131,000 short of the goal.

However, committee members saw that option as unfair to city residents.

“The committee members were all in consensus that placing the majority of the burden on the residents and businesses in the city limits was not a good solution,” Jenkins said.

The committee instead came to a consensus that imposing a 1 percent sales and use tax on items and services purchased within city limits was a much more efficient and viable option.

“If the sales tax was implemented, there would be no need for the addition of municipal fees [for] city residents and businesses,” Jenkins said. Most importantly, the city would achieve its goal of $1 million in new taxes.

Forty-three municipalities have already effectuated a sales tax, including Elkins, Weston and Clarksburg. Many items are exempt from the tax — which can’t be more than 1 percent — including groceries, vehicle sales, prescriptions and personal and professional services.

“This tax is collected at the time of the sale by the merchant and remitted at the same time the West Virginia sales tax is paid,” Jenkins explained. “The state of West Virginia Tax Department collects the tax and remits a portion of that back to the municipalities quarterly.”

“The committee feels this is a fairer way of spreading the responsibility to fund the expenses and are recommending that to city council,” she continued. “Everyone that makes a taxable purchase in the City of Buckhannon would pay 1 cent on a dollar of every taxable purchase.”

Jenkins argued the majority of people who use city services and infrastructure don’t, in fact, dwell in the city.

“Anytime that someone enters city limits [that person] is exposed to city services,” she said. “The police and fire departments [respond to incidents] that for a majority, involve persons that live outside the city limits. Seventy percent of the youth served at the youth center are not city residents. Eighty percent of park [users] are not city residents. I could go on with the walk trail, the dog park, Festival Fridays, fireworks and even the Strawberry Festival … and you know what else? We absolutely love it.”

“We are so happy that [city and county] residents are finding a quality of life in Buckhannon,” Jenkins added. “We want everyone who steps foot in the City of Buckhannon to feel welcome and for the residents that live here to feel safe and have a quality of service from our departments, but it does cost money, and we’re only asking that everyone share the cost, not just the city and not just the businesses in the city.”

Committee commentary

Councilman CJ Rylands, a member of the revenue review committee who owns restaurants in both downtown Buckhannon and Elkins, said he’d initially been opposed to a municipal sales tax.

“As a restaurant owner that will have the cost of his products raised by 1 percent, I do not disagree with any comments that have been made in opposition to this tax,” Rylands said, adding he wasn’t happy when Elkins instituted its 1 percent sales tax.

“We don’t like the fact that eating at our restaurant costs
1 percent more than eating at Applebee’s out on the four-lane,” he said. “However, the imposition of this tax has not impacted our business whatsoever.”

However, because the committee had allocated exactly how it planned to use the additional income, Rylands said his views have shifted.

“As a businessman and resident, my impulse is to say, ‘No. Tighten your belt and do more with less like the rest of us.’ But my role as councilman is to make decisions on the community’s behalf as a whole — not what appeals to me personally,” Rylands said, recommending passage of the tax.

“Why wait until our backs are against the wall before making tough decisions?” he asked. “They’re easy then, because you won’t have any other choice. We need to do the things in the present that will make us successful five or 10 years from now. And if we do, Buckhannon will further differentiate itself from all the other towns across West Virginia.”

Councilman David Thomas, also a committee member, said he saw the tax as a means through which to maintain crucial infrastructure.

“The 1 percent sales tax, I’m in favor of,” Thomas said. “I think it provides opportunities for us to collect money from individuals that use our city amenities here.”

Thomas added he doubted the tax would hurt businesses located inside city limits because many people, like himself, make decisions about which places to patronize based on quality, not location.

Mayor David McCauley quoted the movie, “Field of Dreams,” saying, “If we build it, they will come,” meaning if the city invests in its infrastructure and amenities, businesses able to provide stable, full-time jobs will open up shop in Buckhannon.

“The reinvestment of this additional $1 million is further going to set us apart,” the mayor said. “If we build it, they will come and sustain us in the future, offering our children and our grandchildren jobs that we want to keep them here.

“This is not a leap of faith; it is a calculated risk,” the mayor added. “We believe that this money is necessary to sustain these programs and let us grow.”

Public input: ‘Taxation without representation’?

One community member, Josh Hinchman, asked the committee why the two options presented had to be mutually exclusive.

“Why does it have to be an either/or with the 1 percent or some other fee? Could we not still do the first due fire fee [and the 1 percent sales tax]?” Hinchman asked.

BFD chief J.B. Kimble said the first due fire fee was less than ideal because it could take needed money away from other rural fire departments in the county.

“If we take that first due fire fee, that money is retracted out of the county fire fee, the Selbyville fire department would go from $26,000 a year to $6,000 a year,” Kimble said. “That would hurt our mutual aid fire departments, so Warren District, Ellamore, Washington District, Adrian Fire Department, Rock Cave and Selbyville would lose money because we would be taking the majority of their money that they receive into our district.”

Two residents in attendance commended the city on its financial forethought.

“I think what’s been presented tonight is a good idea,” city resident John Johnson said. “We need to make improvements and we need to maintain what we have.”

County commission candidate Kevin Campbell thanked the city for the presentation but suggested the commission might be more proactive.

“As a candidate for county commission, I applaud your efforts to address the growing needs of the city and to ensure that infrastructure is taken care of in the future,” Campbell said. “We need Buckhannon to be a vibrant community to attract new businesses … if Buckhannon can’t keep up its streets and sidewalks, it’s hard to attract people to move here.

“In the same token, the county’s got to take on its share of the responsibility when it comes to equipment. We share a lot in this.”

But one county resident, Kevin Hoover, said imposing the sales tax wasn’t fair to county residents, who don’t have a voice in municipal government. 

“I think you all have done an adequate job of presenting this, but you’re intentionally creating a tax that taxes, according to the newspaper, 75 percent of the people that don’t have any say-so in city government,” Hoover observed. “I find that to be taxation without representation quite honestly. And if it isn’t, it’s awful close to it. From that aspect, I look at it and say, ‘I think you’re exceeding your authority.’”

Hoover said regular people generally feel “beaten down” by taxes and fees.

“At some point, you all have got to realize that and say enough is enough,” he said. “Maybe you all need to tighten your belts a little bit. Basically, what you’re doing is your strong-arming people for their money, and I just think we’ve reached a point in time where people have been taxed and taxed and taxed and it’s time for you all to maybe look at some other way to get to where you need to be.”

Hoover questioned the city’s decision to purchase the historic Colonial Theatre for $60,000 from former owner Catherine Cuppari.

“Did we need to buy the theatre downtown?” he asked. “I don’t know. Maybe that’s an expense we didn’t need. Maybe we don’t need four or five parks in the city. Maybe we only need two. It’s not fair to keep grabbing the taxpayer by the throat and squeezing more money out of them.”

But city attorney Tom O’Neill countered that most county residents are protected by city services when they cross into municipal bounds.

“As a nonresident of the city and the city attorney, I kind of have a foot in both worlds here,” O’Neill said. “First of all, there’s nothing legally preventing the city from doing this. It’s not taxation without representation. Think of it this way: if I come into the City of Buckhannon to shop or just to drive through, when I cross that municipal boundary, I’m protected by the city of Buckhannon Police Department. If I’m in a wreck, the city of Buckhannon Fire Department’s going to respond … and I won’t pay a dime for it. And that’s not right.”

Couldn’t make it to Tuesday’s meeting? There’s still time to comment, as the process to implement the sales tax is expected to take 15-18 months. Written comments may be sent to Buckhannon City Hall, 70 E. Main St., Buckhannon, WV 26201 or emailed to [email protected]

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