West Virginia State Senators Bill Hamilton and John Pitsenbarger, who represent the 11th District, which includes Pocahontas County, addressed the Pocahontas County Commission Tuesday.
Hamilton said the primary purpose of the visit was to introduce Pitsenbarger, who replaced Senator Greg Bozo who resigned several weeks ago. Hamilton said, rather humorously, that he is now the senior senator from the 11th District.
The senators met with Marlinton Mayor Sam Felton earlier in the day, and they discussed the town’s upcoming sewer project, water project and the need for better broadband internet service, which, Hamilton said, “is just as important as water and sewer.”
Pitsenbarger said he is a lifelong farmer from Nicholas County and has worked on agricultural projects with local farmers here in Pocahontas County.
Commission President David McLaughlin asked Hamilton about the governor’s road bond program, “Roads for Prosperity.”
Hamilton said roads and economic development are high priorities for the county, but he has not yet seen a lot of work being done on roads in the 11th District.
The governor has given assurances that it is coming.
“For now, we just have to be patient,” Hamilton said.
Pitsenbarger noted that a lot of road patching had been done in the county.
Commissioner Walt Hel-mick said he is concerned about phone service in Pocahontas County because Frontier Communications’ stock price has been dropping.
Helmick added that if Frontier went into receivership, that might actually be a good thing since then a competitive company might take over phone service here and do a better job. He said that there are good people working for Frontier, but those people would likely be hired by any new company.
Felton said Frontier has not been doing any maintenance on its equipment or lines here, and they now employ half of the folks they used to, despite enlarging their service area, which now extends from Frankford to Mill Creek.
Helmick said another critical issue facing the county is lack of understanding by the public about the funding of the county school system. He engaged in a lively discussion about how much the “1,400 formula,” a program he helped pass in the state legislature years ago, is financially helping the Pocahontas Board of Education (BOE).
That formula, Helmick explained, means that although there are only 991 students attending school in the county, the state aid formula dramatically increases revenue to the BOE. The 1,400 formula provides aid as if there were 1,400 students attending the schools here, not for just the 991. He said that this substantially helps the Board of Education, but people in the county are not aware of this extra funding or how it works.
Helmick said that there has been a 52 percent decrease in the number of students in county schools since he was a teacher here many years ago. He is concerned that the state may water down the 1,400 Formula in the face of new budget deficits, which would create a budget crisis for the BOE.
Another issue Helmick was concerned about is a lack of understanding by the public about the purpose of the .55% surcharge on fire insurance policies and where that money goes. He said this insurance policy surcharge is collected by the state and goes to local fire departments, who very much need that money. He said that each of the fire departments in Pocahontas County receives $55,337 each year from that surcharge.
Hamilton said that while this helps, each firefighter’s turn-out gear alone costs about $10,000 and has an expiration date on it. He said that people’s fire insurance premiums would triple if a fire department located within six miles of their home or business were forced to close. That would cost them a lot more than the about one-half of one percent fire insurance surcharge does.
Hamilton said that the legislative leaders are also considering doing away with the state business inventory tax in the hope that doing so will bring new businesses to the state. Hamilton said he opposes this unless the legislature can find another way to make up the loss of the $440 million that tax generates each year. He said the problem in bringing new businesses here is the lack of a reliable workforce, not the inventory tax. The two problems he sees with the West Virginia workforce are lack of training and inability of many potential workers to pass a drug test.
Felton pointed out that more reliable internet service is key to solving several problems. It would encourage a lot mountain bikers and other tourists who love this county to consider moving here. He said many would like to, but can’t because phones and computers are just too important to younger people to live in an area that has poor internet service. Felton believes if the connectivity problem was solved it could lead to the creation of new internet-based businesses here, and younger families could mean an increase in school enrollment.
In other business, George Murphy, of the Snowshoe Resort Community District (RAD), provided an update to the commission. He said three voting districts have been established, with each having about one-third of the RAD’s properties. They are currently working on creating ordinances to protect property owners’ investments, and are looking at establishing new sources of revenue such as a resort lodging tax, but Snowshoe Mountain Resort opposes that idea.
The commission will meet again Tuesday, December 17, at 5:30 p.m.