The apparently related issues of revising the way the county’s Hotel/Motel Tax revenue is distributed and the current EMS crisis, requiring the establishment of paid EMS ambulance crews, were the subjects of two recent Pocahontas County Commission meetings.
A special meeting was held January 13 with only one item on the agenda – the distribution of Hotel/Motel Tax receipts.
Commission President Walt Helmick opened the meeting by explaining that this discussion is important since the county needs to provide reliable EMS services to its population because Pocahontas County is the most remote county in West Virginia and has the highest proportion of senior citizens.
Helmick said the commission needs to redistribute money to better “transport sick people” by ambulance.
Commissioner John Rebinski said the EMS crisis has highlighted the issue of how Hotel/Motel Tax money is distributed and that the amount of money generated by that tax has increased several fold over the past five or six years. He said that has greatly increased the amount of money going to the seven organizations that receive a percentage of those tax revenues.
Those are Preserving Pocahontas; The Artisan’s Co-op; the Arts Council; the Historic Landmarks Commission; Dramas, Fairs and Festivals; Parks and Recreation; and the Pocahontas County Free Libraries and Information Centers.
Rebinski said that some of those seven organizations have received increases of $150,000 to $200,000 a year because the Hotel/Motel Tax revenue has grown so much, and this is unfair to other organizations which are just as deserving and just as important to the community, such as Meals-on-Wheels, which is being funded out of general-fund money and does not receive the increased annual funding as the seven H/M tax recipients do.
Rebinski also pointed out that the four organizations which, by commission policy, receive fixed amounts of Hotel/Motel tax funds also don’t benefit from the increases of the Hotel/Motel tax revenues.
Those receiving fixed amounts are: Pocahontas Memorial Hospital, $75,000 a year; EMS, $75,000 a year; the County Fire Board, $50,000 a year; and Bricks and Mortars, $25,000 a year.
Rebinski said the current way the tax revenue is distributed is not fair since these funds were not intended for “just a small group of organizations, but for the entire county.” He said there has to be a cap on what those seven organizations receive, because many of them spend more money than they require to operate, just because it is there. Rebinski said he wants to take that extra money and put it into a “rainy day fund or use it to help other deserving organizations that don’t currently receive Hotel/Motel Tax funding.
At that point, Rebinski went on what he described as a “rant.” He said that some people have accused him of trying to destroy tourism in the county by proposing changes to the Hotel/Motel Tax distribution methods.
“Stop the B.S.!” he said. “I could take all of the money away from four of those organizations and it wouldn’t hurt tourism at all. I am not hurting tourism by changing the way the money is given out, trying to spread the money wisely, not just to five or six organizations.
“I am going to rein-in these funds so they are spread out more.”
Rebinski went on to say that once the EMS crisis is solved, we should be prepared to help fire departments next because they are also losing volunteers.
Cara Rose, executive director of the Convention and Visitors Bureau asked Rebinski if he has already prepared a formal written proposal to change the Hotel/Motel Tax distribution, and Rebinski replied “not yet, this discussion is just part of the process to determine what the formal plan should look like.”
Rebinski said he envisions that those seven organizations should submit annual budget requests to the commission for Hotel/Motel Tax money based upon their specific needs, and those requests should include justifications for it, just as county agencies do every year. The commission will then either approve or decrease the request, based on the justifications submitted.
Rebinski said he is “not looking to have those organizations lose employees or to close down any libraries, he just wants to provide them with the amount of money they need, not more than that.”
Lauren Bennett, director of Parks and Recreation, said “the money we all get is used for the benefit of the public.” Rebinski replied that he recognizes that, but there are other organizations out there that also serve the public, many of which are also tied into tourism, but those are not included in the present distribution system.
Helmick summed things up by saying “change is inevitable, but the county won’t be hurting these groups.”
Herb Barlow of the Marlinton VFD said that there needs to be a county-wide Fire/EMS Fee, but he is concerned that people in the southern part of the county won’t want to pay a fee for a service that is only provided in the northern part of the county. Rebinski said that the initial $170,000 would only be a starting point for the program, which would begin in the northern part of the county, then move south.
Bill McNeel questioned if the commission can legally distribute Hotel/Motel Tax money in the manner proposed by Rebinski.
Commissioner Jamie Wal-ker pointed out that tourism and EMS are connected since when there are major tourism events occurring in the county, fire/EMS calls correspondingly increase, increasing the strain on the volunteer system. Walker suggested that people running these events should also be responsible for financially supporting EMS. He said he tends to favor staying with a percentage system for distributing the tax funds.
At the January 17 regular county commission meeting, Margaret Worth addressed the commission – Commissioner John Rebinski in particular – saying that she found the discussion during the special meeting “vulgar and disconcerting,” referring to Rebinski’s “rant.” She said Rebinski had attacked the representatives of those organizations receiving a percentage of the tax funding, and that he didn’t seem to recognize the value of the work they do for the community. Worth said she had no problem with beefing up EMS, or even adjusting the way the Hotel/Motel Tax is distributed, but does have a problem with the “tone” of that meeting, and also has a problem with using the COVID money to build a courthouse annex when EMS is in trouble and could use that money. She also suggested that instead of building a new 911 Center near the hospital, it should be relocated to the existing empty office building in the Edray Industrial Park.
Rebinski acknowledged his “rant” at the special meeting, but said that it needed to be said because he has been falsely accused of trying to hurt tourism with his proposals, which upsets him because it is untrue.
Rebinski said that the Edray building was considered as a 911 Center but ruled out as not being practical. He also said that the county has needed a new 911 Center and courthouse annex for many years, and the COVID money is the only way those will ever be built, so they will be built.
Rebinski added that those organizations receiving a percentage of the Hotel/ Motel Tax will be fine, even with his proposed distribution change, but will only lose that extra money coming in every year as the tax revenues rapidly grow. He said those organizations “are not entitled to that money, but we will give them the opportunity to justify it by submitting a budget request.”
In addition, at the January 17 regular meeting, Dave Sharp, an Engineer with the Podesta Company, which was hired to do a feasibility study on the PMH’s water and sewer projects, said those studies have been completed.
Regarding the sewer project, he said there were three options:
1. Connecting the sewerage lines from the hospital and the school to the Marlinton sewer system via a gravity flow pipeline down the hill and connecting it to the Marlinton sewer system at a manhole located near the hospital entrance at U.S. 219. The cost is estimated to be $2.94 million and some residences on Beard Heights might connect to it.
2. Relocate the present treatment sewerage plant (which needs to be replaced, because the lease will not be renewed.) The new plant would be moved to Buckeye and would discharge the treated water into Swago Creek. The estimated cost of this would be $2.16 million but would not include any new customers.
3. Relocate the current plant to the far side of Buckeye and discharge the treated water into the Greenbrier River. This would allow the residents of Buckeye to hook into the system. This option has an estimated cost of $3.77 million.
Regarding the water system there were also three options presented.
1. Do nothing, but the current well system is not reliable, so this is impractical.
2. Connect to the Marlinton water system at the booster station near the museum and pipe the water up the hill to the hospital and school, at an estimated cost of $2.13 million
3. Upgrade the present water system by drilling a new well and upgrade the present water treatment plant. This option is estimated to cost $650,000.
The commission will make decisions on these proposals at a later date.
In other business:
• approved a drawdown of $43,220 from the Pocahontas County ARC Broadband grant to pay Thompson and Litton invoices and pay the attorney fees for negotiating the Organization and Maintenance agreement with CityNet.
• received updated financial information from Brenda Harmon of the Artisan’s Co-op regarding their “for pro-fit” subsidiary corporation.