CHARLESTON, W.Va. —  The Senate Government Organization Committee on Thursday approved a bill to allow counties to impose a 1 percent sales tax and another to reorganize the management of state emergency planning and response services.

Much of the discussion on the emergency response bill focused on a small provision added to the committee substitute, which sets up a means for the Adjutant General’s Department to oversee demolition of abandoned buildings across the state. “It’s a minor part of this which is going to have major positive repercussions,” said Sen. Mike Woelfel, D-Cabell.

Sales tax bill

SB 580 allows counties to impose a 1 percent sales tax to help cover the growing costs of regional jail bills and infrastructure repairs.

It’s permissive; counties can impose it if they wish. If cities within the county already have their own sales tax, they are exempt from the county tax, to avoid a doubling of the sales tax inside the city. The exemption would apply to any cities that already have one or that would impose one after imposition of a county tax.

Wood County Commission President Blair Couch highlighted the need for the tax for his county. Wood’s three cities – Williamstown, Vienna and Parkersburg – all have their own 1 percent tax.

Williamstown, with just a restaurant, gas station and dollar store, raised $400,000 in excess revenue. Vienna doubled its annual budget from $5 million to $10 million. And Parkersburg’s budget climbed from $26 million to $34 million.

All three have been able to hire more police officers and give them raises. Parkersburg has tried to poach Wood’s deputies by offering a $10,000 bounty for new hires and posting billboards around the courthouse.

Wood’s sheriff’s department, he said, needs five new deputies, and they could raise the money by raising the property tax levy rate, but they don’t want to.

Sen. Randy Smith, R-Tucker, said he doesn’t like new taxes and opposed the bill until he heard the discussion. Tucker’s revenue comes largely from tourists, who in turn place a heavy demand on emergency services. For Tucker, the increased revenue would come mostly from out-of-state visitors.

He could see other counties benefiting from this option, he said.

Sen. Eric Tarr, R-Putnam, proposed an amendment to require a majority-vote referendum before a county could impose the tax. His was the only vote for the amendment.

He also offered the only vote against the bill. It goes next to Finance.

Emergency management bill

SB 326 would transfer the Division of Homeland Security and Emergency Management from the Department of Military Affairs and Public Safety to a new, standalone Adjutant General’s Department directly under the governor.

Within that office, all homeland security and emergency management funds and functions would be coordinated by a State Resiliency Officer/Homeland Security Advisor appointed by the Governor and overseen by the adjutant general.

The bill arises in response to the long string of failures of previous leadership of Homeland Security and Emergency Management which led to such things as lost inventory and ineffective administration of federal grants.

Much of the discussion, though, focused on the abandoned structures provision added through the efforts of Sen. Chandler Swope, R-Mercer.

Woelfel pointed out that it was Swope’s work that got the provision into the bill and praised him for it, saying it is one of the most important things the Senate has done this session and will enhance neighborhoods and raise property values.

The provision grants the Adjutant General’s Department authority to demolish and clean up abandoned and dilapidated structures across the state in order to promote economic development.

Swope explained what prompted the provision. An ongoing inventory in McDowell County, part of his district, puts the number of abandoned houses “north of 5,000,” with several hundred more abandoned commercial buildings and schools.

Extrapolating that statewide, he said, there could be more than 50,000. So he approached the governor about making it a statewide program. There are local programs, but they’re too limited in scope.

Swope said the governor understood and got behind the idea; so now it’s in the bill.

Members approved the bill unanimously. It has a reference to Finance, but members said because it has no major fiscal impact, it doesn’t need to go there and the Finance chair has agreed to accept a request to waive the reference.

So after passing the bill, Sen, Dave Sypolt, R-Preston, made the request official and the bill is expected to go directly to the Senate floor.

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