Morgantown City Council is moving rapidly toward a questionable and controversial purchase of 40 acres of woods adjacent to the city.  Council voted 6-1 Tuesday night to move ahead with a plan to pay $5.2 million for the property, most of which is outside the city limits.

Supporters on council say the forest can serve as an important green space for the city and eventually be part of a connected “green belt” around Morgantown.  Deputy Mayor Mark Brazaitis, who campaigned on the promise of saving what’s known as the Haymaker Forest, even waxes poetic about the land.

“Green spaces are essential to the physical, mental, and economic health of our community,” he said in a city news release.  “They offer vital natural protection against extreme weather events, including floods and heat waves thereby saving enormous amounts of money.  They are places where we can find peaceful refuge from our hectic lives.”

Certainly it is reasonable for a community to try to manage its space to improve the quality of life and discourage overdevelopment, although it’s highly doubtful the Haymaker Forest has much affect on Morgantown’s weather.

Also, the vague plan for the Haymaker Forest does not include recreational development.  “The land acquired through this program would be open to the public and some {emphasis added} may have pathways for pedestrians, but they would not become ‘active’ parks,” said a release by the city.  “Instead it would become managed public land and kept in its natural state.”

God forbid Morgantown residents would actually want to use the forest that they paid for.

But the green agenda aside, the real problem with the proposal is the finances. There’s already a contract drawn up where the city promises to pay $5.2 million for the land.  That is equivalent to 15 percent of the entire city budget for 2018-2019.

The property has been assessed at just $1.3 million. Of course assessed value is not market value, so Morgantown residents so far have no idea what the woods are actually worth.

The City does not have enough money on hand to buy the property outright, so the plan is to make the initial payments out of the city’s capital improvement escrow fund and then ask the voters next April to approve a levy.  If Morgantown voters are willing to pay higher taxes to buy a woods, then the city might want to throw in a bridge or two.

The funding plan is backward.  Typically, cities, counties and school boards float a levy first, and if voters approve, then the government spends the money. Morgantown is about to take a significant financial risk here without the approval of the voters.

Additionally, you have to wonder what other department heads in Morgantown think of this planned expenditure. Are all other capital needs met?  Are the police, fire and street departments so flush that they will happily forgo any additional equipment, manpower and maintenance needs to accommodate the green agenda?

Councilman Ron Dulaney, who was the only “no” vote Tuesday night, believes the deal is not fiscally responsible. He said on WAJR’s Morgantown AM talk show of his vote, “I didn’t really see concrete ways to pay for it, number one, and number two, I wasn’t convinced that this was the best way to invest $5.2 million.”

Deputy Mayor Brazaitis, who lives next to the Haymaker Forest, has described the woods as a “magical place.” Fair enough.  We are mountain folk in West Virginia and many of us feel a spiritual kinship with land.

However, this would be a substantial expense for Morgantown, one that the taxpayers have not agreed to.  The mystical must be weighed against the practical.

 

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