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Upshur County employees, residents say they support tax hike to save jobs

By Christina Lane
June 21, 2012 at 10 p.m.

GILMER - Upshur County employees and taxpayers turned out by the dozens Thursday night to tell one commissioner that the majority of them would support a tax increase to save jobs and to save the county's budgets.

"You can make cuts this year, you can make cuts next year, but sooner or later people are going to have to pay more taxes," county employee and taxpayer Chris McCauley said. "Sooner or later people are going to wake up and realize they're getting half the service. We have to deliver service. We're not a business. We're a county."

Pct. 2 Commissioner Cole Hefner called a town hall meeting Thursday night to allow the community to voice their concerns and opinions on the county's upcoming 2012-13 fiscal budget.

"I was very pleased with the meeting," Hefner said. "I appreciated the comments from the citizens and from the employees. I wanted to open things up to the public."

This past year, the commissioners court, in a 4-1 vote, adopted a budget that was about $950,000 short, requiring the court to pull money from its reserve funds that act as a sort of savings account. Pct. 3 Commissioner Lloyd Crabtree cast the dissenting vote, and County Judge Dean Fowler was temporarily not serving in his regular position at the time.

This year, a budget must be adopted by the end of September. Fowler has said not only must the county account for the $950,000 that was short in the past year, but commissioners must also budget about $300,000 toward a matching grant with the Teas Historical Commission for a courthouse restoration project. Overall, the commissioners must account for $1.2 million, he said.

Of the 150 people who attended the meeting, many were county employees who feared they would lose their jobs or lose benefits. Hefner has said he is firmly against a tax increase.

"You would rather be known as the commissioner who would rather not raise taxes than make people lose their jobs," Clint Steelman said.

Hefner said he is not looking at specific personnel cuts.

He is considering reducing the county's match to employees' retirement to save the county $240,000 to $260,000 annually. He is also supportive of changing how food is served in the jail, contracting it out and saving about $150,000. Hefner, who reduced his commissioner salary by $10,000 this past year, said he is also in favor of seeing all commissioners reduce their salaries to $25,000 to $30,000, saving about $50,000 a year.

"I do not believe it is right to have to raise the burden for 40,000 taxpayers," Hefner said, regarding a tax rate increase.

"There are 200-plus county employees," tax office employee Brandy Davis said. "Why is it up to 200-plus county employees to make up for 40,000 taxpayers?"

Wade Davis said if Upshur County employees leave their jobs because their benefits, such as retirement, are cut, the county should be wary of what kind of employees it will get.

"If you want to keep good people, then you need to start raising taxes," he said.

Donna Whitaker, who works in the tax assessor-collector's office, said the reason the county is in such as predicament is because commissioners have consistently adopted a tax rate lower than the effective rate.



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