One of the primary reasons for this is the continued decline in coal, oil and gas severance taxes, which the state levies on companies that extract non-renewable resources. That shortfall is estimated to be in the ballpark of $250 million. Property tax revenue is declining, too.
While the impact on state agencies and programs – such as the school system, health and human services – are garnering plenty of public discussion, less attention is being paid to what this situation will mean for counties, which have equally critical service provision obligations to the citizens of West Virginia.
During the upcoming legislative session, we anticipate that the State of West Virginia will be forced to cast the net far and wide in search of ways to plug the budgetary shortfall. The County Commissioners’ Association of West Virginia will be working hard to ensure that the already limited revenue sources available to the counties are protected, and are not used to fill budgetary needs elsewhere.
Public safety services at risk
Counties are already very restricted in how they can spend those monies. Their primary financial responsibilities are paying the regional jail bill, maintaining the courthouse, and adequately funding county-run offices, such as county health departments and police and fire services.
One thing we fear, and with good reason, is that the legislature will start looking at county funds, such as 911 fees, to plug their budget gap.
Funding from the provision of 911 services, which at the moment support critical communications and public safety infrastructure, has long been looked at as a glimmering pot of gold, and a number of state entities would very much like a bigger share.
They may not be aware that counties very much need the scant portion they receive. In order to run a modern 911 center, counties are frequently updating 911 equipment in order to stay in compliance with ever-changing technological demands, such as text or video chat 911 calls. As the demands are increasing, the pot of revenue is decreasing – 911 fees have stagnated as the cell phone market is saturated and land lines are quickly becoming a thing of the past.
Many counties are already feeling the pinch. County services have been slashed, and some counties have even had to lay employees off and/or reduce salaries for remaining employees. The undeniable result is reduced services for residents and local businesses, and we believe this is not the direction West Virginia should be headed.
On the expenses side of the ledger, the cost of incarceration is crippling.
It costs counties $48.25 per inmate, per day to keep someone in a regional jail. In some counties, it’s estimated that 70 – 80 percent of the jail population is in for drug-related crimes. As West Virginia’s drug problem grows, not enough attention is being paid to treatment of addiction, and where it would be much more effective and cost-efficient to provide treatment of the problem, instead individuals end up in county jails.
As a result the justice system is overtaxed, and prosecutors and judges have so many people on the docket that it frequently takes a while for an inmate to have their day in court. Until then, they sit in the jail, and every day they are there the county foots the bill.
In more prosperous times, many counties had enough money to fund parks, give grants to local agencies, and other “extras.” But with revenues sharply declining and costs for counties increasing, “non-essential” county services and programs are being cut. County employees are feeling the pinch, our county-run justice services are stretched beyond capacity, and the safeguards of our public safety are in jeopardy.
In the months ahead we’ll be reminding state legislators to keep these vital county-level issues in mind.