Snowshoe property owner Bill McHenry delivered a briefing to the Pocahontas County Commission on Tuesday morning, recommending several changes to the statute authorizing the creation of resort area districts (RADs) in West Virginia.
McHenry is a retired Marine Corps program director, with a Master’s Degree in Public Policy and a Ph.D. in Organizational Planning. McHenry served as an Marine Corps Infantry/Recon officer and commanded units in Vietnam, Beirut and Southwest Asia. His military service includes several years in Special Operations assignments in Africa and Asia.
“The RAD may be a good thing for Snowshoe, the county and state if properly developed and implemented, but the process needs to be slowed down and done right,” he said.
McHenry studied 15 other special tax districts across the U.S. while preparing his recommendations, and concluded that legislation in other states differs significantly from the RAD statute passed by the West Virginia Legislature in 2013.
“Many RADs nationally are doing a good job, but these RADs are significantly different than the one Intrawest wants,” he said.
McHenry said the Legislature should have included more people and groups in the planning process when drafting the RAD law.
“It appears the West Virginia State Attorney General’s Office, the West Virginia Council on Economic Development, communities in the county that are effected by the limited and narrow law, other resort operators, and the local banking and real estate communities did not participate in the planning process,” he said. “This was not an inclusive process nor was due diligence, in my opinion, accomplished. Folks from throughout the county that could benefit in the future know nothing about it.”
McHenry distributed an executive summary listing the following recommendations:
1. Send the law back to the Legislature to make it less specific so that petitions can be crafted by counties and petitioners to individual resort sites, like Cass and Durbin, and throughout the county and state.
2. RAD Board seats should be allocated by ownership and value of real improved property based upon tax assessment. Unimproved parcels are not included since they place no demand on service nor do they add RAD revenue. This significantly changes Intrawest’s petition that automatically assigned them four of seven seats with no reasonable justification.
3. The RAD must follow the rules for municipalities for borrowing and interest. Intrawest wanted no limits. No assessments or liens on private property. Everybody in the proposed district gets to vote and by mail.
4. The County Commission should be able to disestablish or place an expiration date on the RAD as most others do.
Summary: Intrawest has asked the Commissioners to give them control of decision making, charge up to a five per cent tax from tourists and residents, borrow and pay interest without restriction, place assessments on the property of private homeowners, place liens against private property that supersede mortgages that makes it difficult to sell or refinance, and makes it very difficult for the economic development of the county and state. What could go wrong?
McHenry delivered a written report and a proposed revised RAD statute to the Commission and recommended that the Commission request the Legislature to make the changes. Following the briefing, McHenry answered questions and the Commission heard public comments on the RAD alternative.
Norman Alderman commended Commissioners Jamie Walker and William Beard for voting down the Snowshoe RAD petition.
“You dodged a bullet,” he said. “Everything I’ve heard here today let me know just how much damage that bullet was going to do.”
Snowshoe resident David Litsey, an active RAD opponent during the petition process, recommended a review by the West Virginia Attorney General.
“I think that the Attorney General, who has offered his services for free, ought to be consulted in this,” he said. “Then, we re-work a plan and bring it to our state legislators and say, ‘this is what we’d like to see move forward.’”
Sam Collins said he had spoken with representatives of several homeowners’ associations.
“Their whole heartache with the RAD proposal was a lot of them didn’t even know about it,” he said. “But their biggest concerns were the assessments and the borrowing. There was hardly anybody that had any heartache over a resort area fee. I think you would get all kinds of support for it if the assessment and the borrowing was out of the RAD.”
Gil Willis said a Snowshoe Mountain majority on the RAD governing board would be unfair.
“If the homeowners and the businesses, like myself, are the bulk or the majority up there, we should also have a majority of the votes on the advisory board to make these decisions on where the money is spent,” he said. “I don’t think giving Snowshoe a majority is good faith on their part. All these years, 40 years of Snowshoe, the homeowners up there have never really had a majority of anything.”
Snowshoe Mountain CEO Frank DeBerry responded to McHenry’s briefing and public comments.
“As far as representation and voting, I’d just like to point out that 95 percent of the annual operating budget would be the burden of Snowshoe to collect and pass on,” he said. “So, the annual budget is the resort service fees. Snowshoe is the source of resort service fees.”
“We still are responsible for the $2.5 million MTA [Mountaintop Assessment] budget,” DeBerry added. “We would be responsible for collection of 95 percent of the resort service fees. We need to have a strong seat at the board. We need to represent those interests.”
DeBerry responded to criticism of the petition process.
“The petition process that was called into question is no different than the petition process that’s being brought to you by the fire commission,” he said. “It has precedent in the State of West Virginia and we followed the existing precedent.”
DeBerry said he supported limits on RAD borrowing power.
“As far as borrowing, we used existing precedent,” he said. “In fact, we worked with the Bankers’ Commission to promise to address their concern over the cap. I’ve offered up that, while I can’t pass a bylaw, I won’t support a set of bylaws that permits any special assessment in the aggregate greater than the same restrictions that exist within a municipality.”
DeBerry compared the failed RAD petition to the Snowshoe sewage controversy, and characterized RAD opposition as unnecessary obstruction of progress at the resort community.
The Commission moved to other agenda items and heard a complaint from Laura Dent, manager of Al’s Upper Inn Club in Durbin. Dent said she dialed 911, but was unable to contact the 911 Center during an altercation at the club on November 1. The club manager attempted four calls to 911 and eventually called Snowshoe Resort, who contacted the 911 Center for her.
Emergency Management Services Director Shawn Dunbrack explained that there was no problem with the equipment at the 911 Center and that he had reported the problem to Frontier Communications. The director said Frontier had completed an investigation and was unable to determine a cause or replicate the problem.
“I can’t force Frontier to fix a problem that they can’t find,” he said.
Dunbrack said there had been a previous problem with a Frontier switch in Charleston that had affected 911 service.
In other business, the Commission:
– Approved the hiring of Cindy Beverage as Deputy Circuit Clerk at a salary of $2,000 per month;
– Approved a budget revision to allow the Sheriff’s Department to pay a $13,000 attorney bill. The Sheriff was successful in appealing and nullifying a $50,000 judgment against the Department in an action for back pay by a former deputy.
– Approved returning the county dental/vision insurance plan to the West Virginia Association of Counties, and;
– Approved a $5,000 contribution to the Green Bank Telescope marketing campaign.
The next regular County Commission meeting is scheduled for December 16 at 5:30 p.m.