CHARLESTON, W.Va. -- Members of the Kanawha County Commission voted to spend $1.5 million Tuesday night, which is the final piece of the funding puzzle needed to build a new bridge to Coonskin Park and better secure the National Guard's 130th Airlift Wing.State and local officials say the new bridge is mandatory to close off Coonskin Drive to the public and keep the federal government from closing the 130th Airlift Wing.When the federal Base Realignment and Closure Commission tried to shut down the 130th in 2005, base security was one of the arguments it used. Coonskin Drive, which runs from Greenbrier Street to Coonskin Park, also runs right past the 130th Airlift Wing headquarters and a National Guard armory.State and local officials want to close off Coonskin Drive to the public and build a new entrance to Coonskin Park across the Elk River in the Mink Shoals area. Gov. Earl Ray Tomblin, state Adj. Gen. James Hoyer, officials for Yeager Airport and members of the Kanawha County Commission all agree Coonskin Drive must be closed to survive another round of federal base closures. Hoyer said the 130th and armory create about 1,100 part-time and 350 full-time jobs, and contribute about $89 million to the local economy.
The 130th, which shares a mountaintop with Yeager Airport, also provides security and fire protection for the airport. Airport Director Rick Atkinson has said the airport might be forced to shut down if it loses the 130th and has to build a new fire station and pay for emergency and fire service.Hoyer said the bridge is expected to cost between $9 million and $11 million. The late Sen. Robert C. Byrd, D-W.Va., tried to get money for the new span included in the federal budget, but died before the money could be secured.State and local officials have agreed to pick up the tab. County commissioners Kent Carper, Dave Hardy and Hoppy Shores voted unanimously to put $1.5 million in county money toward the project. Carper said the Yeager Airport board has also agreed to $1.5 million in funding.Hoyer said the rest of the money for the bridge will come from the state and the National Guard. He said the project will be bid out in September, and could be completed within two years.As thanks for their support for the National Guard, Hoyer presented county commissioners with a framed commissioned painting that represents the long history of the West Virginia National Guard's contributions to national defense."We have been a part of the national defense since before we were even a state," Hoyer said.Called "The Beeline March," the painting portrays militiamen from Shepherdstown who, in 1775, marched 600 miles in 25 days to Cambridge, Mass., to answer a call from George Washington, helping to form the fledgling Continental Army.Hardy said voting for the bridge was the easiest decision he's made in 12 years on the County Commission.Carper called the decision a "no brainer." "We did this because we know it's the right thing to do," he said.County officials aren't yet sure how they'll pay for the contribution, but at least some of the funding will come from coal severance taxes.Also Tuesday, Carper asked county tax officials to come up with a plan to collect $12 million in past due property taxes. Chief Tax Deputy Allen Bleigh said thousands of county residents and businesses haven't paid their taxes, some for years.
Bleigh said the worst offender is Martin Twist Energy, a Kentucky-based oil and gas company that owes about $3 million in back taxes. He said tax officials are in the process of suing the company to get the money.County officials said they have tried everything from hiring collection agencies to full-blown threats to get delinquent taxpayers to pay up, with varying degrees of success. Carper gave Bleigh 30 days to come up with a plan to recover what he could of the $12 million in unpaid taxes.Reach Rusty Marks at firstname.lastname@example.org