Commission continues library funding while seeking clarification

Suzanne Stewart
Staff Writer

It was standing room only at the Pocahontas County Commission meeting July 18 as members of the community came out in droves to show their support for the Pocahontas County library system.

In response to a comment made by commission counsel Bob Martin at the July 5 commission meeting, saying it is illegal for the commission to fund library services with Hotel/Motel tax, supporters of the library came to try to counter the claim.

Commission president Bill Beard explained that the commission received a notice concerning the funding which sparked the investigation.

“We received notice from the West Virginia Association of County Commissioners – it was an item that we needed to look at,” Beard said. “We saw that, and we felt like it was time to start doing some investigation on the law itself. At that point, Mr. Martin started work for us to come up with some information.

“I feel like it will give you some pretty good information,” Beard continued. “This is an item none of us wants to open up, but I think it is something that when you look at the law, it is spelling it out.”

Prior to allowing the public to speak, Beard asked Martin to explain why he said it is unlawful for Hotel/Motel tax to be used for library services.

Martin cited the statute in West Virginia Code which spells out how Hotel/Motel tax may be used by county commissions. In the statute, there are 10 beneficiaries of the tax funding, including Convention and Visitors Bureaus, historic sites, beautification projects, tourism information centers and promotion of the arts.

Martin concluded, because the statute does not use the word library in any form, he believes the tax was never meant to fund libraries. He added that he informed the commission that, in his opinion, it should stop funding the library system through Hotel/Motel tax because it could become a legal matter.

“It is a criminal statute, a penal statute,” Martin said. “It must be strictly construed. The legislature had plenty of opportunity, and obviously, we had senators and delegates down there who knew what these entities mean to the rural counties, and they decided not to put that ‘L’ word in the statute.”

Pocahontas County prosecuting attorney Gene Simmons said he agreed with Martin, but added that he is willing to form a committee with Martin and other concerned individuals to find a way around the statute or a way to get the statute altered to include libraries.

Many of those in attendance disagreed with Martin, and voiced their opinions on how the libraries fall under the statute because of the programs offered at the facilities including art shows, tourism information, recreational materials and more.

Pocahontas County Libraries director Cree Lahti shared a four-page printout with the commissioners, which showed the many programs offered at the libraries which she believes fall under the statute requirements.

“Tourism is our primary industry here in Pocahontas County, and the libraries are strategically located throughout our county, and every single day, at every single library we serve the tourists of our county with free computer services, free wifi, book sales, information about maps and brochures, and we help give these people a positive experience in Pocahontas County,” Lahti said. “I feel that is a way we can fit in the code.”

Lahti added that in the past year, the Linwood Community Library had 1,200 visitors.

While most library supporters spoke about the programs and how the libraries would fit into the statute, Pocahontas County Free Libraries treasurer Michelle Jeffers explained why the news of possibly losing Hotel/Motel tax funding greatly concerned her.

“When this all hit the papers last week, we had to have an emergency meeting,” Jeffers said. “We have received our money up through July 1, but that’s where our budget ended with that money, and we’re starting a new year. Without this money, if this goes into effect right now, while you’re working on a plan and so forth, our only recourse for right now – short term and I’m hoping it’s not long term – we will have to close all of the branches except for McClintic. We will have to lay off six to seven people and run it on a bare bones budget without about three librarians.”

Many speakers, including Laurie Cameron, Denise McNeel, Alice Arbuckle and Allen Johnson spoke passionately about the libraries and asked the commission to continue the funding until the law could be further explored.

The commissioners stated it is difficult to go against the law, especially a penal statute which leaves the commissioners open to misdemeanor charges.

Arbuckle and Cameron both raised their voices and asserted that the commissioners should take the fine and fight for the libraries.
Taking control of the situation, Beard asked for order and even stated Sheriff Jeff Barlow could escort Cameron out if he continued to raise his voice.

“I don’t think anybody here on the commission is opposing the library,” Beard said. “We feel like it is a good thing for the community, but we want to uphold the law. We’re going to hold order here.”

The commissioners continued the conversation and Beard reiterated that he supports the libraries, but he has to uphold the law.

“We have no intention of coming here and stranding the library,” he said. “I talked to you [directed at Denise McNeel] and you were cutting me down every time I said something, and you wouldn’t listen. I do support the library, and I also asked you, Mrs. McNeel, and told you that the commission would stand up and go to the legislature for support and you said you didn’t need our help, and I was really insulted over that.

“I want to clarify,” Beard continued, “I’m here in support of you all, but I do think there’s something wrong with using the Hotel/Motel [tax]. I don’t think the law was intended to…”

“Can we hear what David thinks?” McNeel interrupted.

In response to McNeel’s request, commissioner David McLaughlin said he believes there are some gray areas in the law, and that he would like to continue research into the statute to find a way to include libraries in the funding.

“I thought there was enough gray area with recreation and arts, and so forth to sneak by on this,” he said. “I still believe that, and I think that could be an interpretation from the attorney general to have the legislature clarify that.”

Commissioner Jesse Groseclose said he felt the law seemed black and white, but he is also willing to fight to find a way to continue to fund the libraries, even if it is not with Hotel/Motel tax.

“The library is a shining asset to the county,” he said. “I just took that oath of office a few days ago to uphold the law, so I have to go with that, but I’m willing to hang out there for whatever you think. If you all agree to be on a committee, I would be tickled.”

After more than an hour and forty minutes of discussion, the commissioners agreed to continue Hotel/ Motel tax funding for the next 30 days until a committee could form to work on the statute. The commission will return to the issue at its September 5 meeting.

In other business:

• Commission rescheduled the Snowshoe Resort Area District (RAD) Public Meeting for Friday, October 27, at 5 p.m.

Martin explained that Snowshoe Mountain Resort COO Frank DeBerry requested the change because the initial letters sent to homeowners were not sent by certified mail which was a mistake. DeBerry said he will resend the RAD ballots through certified mail and have the ballots returned to the county commission.

Martin said he, along with administrative secretary Sue Helton and Beard, counted the ballots which have been returned, and fewer than 25 percent were against the RAD. If more than 25 percent reflected a “no” vote, the issue would be null and void.

• Commission approved appointment of Roger Trusler, Sam Gibson and Glenn Galloway for three-year terms, expiring June 30, 2020 to the Pocahontas County Parks and Recreation Board.

The next County Commission meeting is Tuesday, August 1, at 8:30 a.m.

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