Boone County, once bringing in a surplus of money from a state tax on coal companies, now faces a harsh reality: The county doesn’t have enough money to make it through next year.
The county budget revealed a more than $2.5 million budget shortfall brought on by a dwindling population and rapidly decreasing revenue from the statewide coal severance tax.
Elected officials are scrambling to figure out what they can trim, including county jobs and benefits in an area where employment has disappeared following mine closures.
“These have been very trying times in Boone County,” County Commissioner Brett Kuhn said. “The loss of coal and jobs associated with it have really caused a lot of anxiety here in the coalfields.”
County leaders are also considering eliminating funding for the county’s Economic Development Corporation, an agency tasked with bringing businesses and grants to the area for much-needed projects.
Additionally, funding cuts could mean shutting off lights and maintenance at some county parks and slashing funding for a senior nutrition program.
However, Boone County Prosecutor Keith Randolph emphasized pending layoffs and proposed agency funding cuts would not be enough to make up the deficit; $800,000 has yet to be trimmed from the budget.
“Coal hasn’t come back to Boone County,” he said. “If we wait until next year, will we even be able to pay bills?”
Decline prompted financial distress
Not too long ago, Boone County was able to fund myriad of high-cost projects including a judicial annex and schools athletic fields.
Much of the county’s financial surplus was attributed to revenue from the state’s coal severance tax.
“Six years ago, we had received $8.6 million from coal severance tax,” Randolph explained.
Every county in West Virginia, including non-coal producing counties, receives funds from a severance tax from the coal industry that stems from a tax on coal collected by the state. The majority of the tax revenue is distributed to coal-producing counties, including Boone County.
This year, Randolph said the county will be lucky if it receives an expected $800,000 from the special tax.
This year, 100 percent of the coal severance tax revenue is obligated to go to the state to pay for the county’s jail bill, according to Randolph.
“If it continues as is, the [tax revenue] won’t be enough to cover it, and we’ll have to dip into the general fund,” he said.
There is enough money to make it through the end of the year, Randolph said, but it’s next year where the budget gap is prompting urgent concerns and cuts.
More than $6.6 million of the county’s $7.2 million budget is necessary for constitutionally required offices, which includes the county commission, county prosecutor’s office, and the Boone County Sheriff’s Office.
However, Boone County expects to bring in only $4.7 million next year.
Randolph also pointed to decreasing property values brought on by home foreclosures, vacant homes and a dwindling population as reason for the decreased county revenue.
Boone County’s property in 2013 was valued at $1.7 billion; Randolph said property evaluations last year came in at $955 million.
Cuts suggested for Economic Development office, parks and rec
Vernon Eversole, a Madison resident, stood up at a public meeting Aug. 12 and blamed Boone County commissioners for the county’s financial distress.
“It sounds to me like you weren’t really watching what was going on,” he said.
The meeting, hosted by Boone County elected officials, was billed as a chance for leaders and the public to present ideas that could help reduce the budget deficit.
Eversole emphasized that he had seen “wasteful spending” when the county was bringing in large sums from the coal severance tax.
“We all love our kids, but the number of kids in this county is dropping. How much money have we put into athletic fields?” he added.
The looming budget deficit already prompted a round of layoffs and elimination of open positions earlier this summer.
The cuts included the loss of two deputies as well as cuts in the county prosecutor’s office.
More county position cuts are expected in a month or so, Randolph said, and the cuts are expected to again hit the sheriff’s office.
The Boone County Sheriff’s Office did not return a request for comment regarding what positions could be eliminated.
“There may be a time in the future when we don’t have a 24-hour law enforcement presence,” Randolph said. “The loss of deputies maybe means certain calls are going to take a while to get answered.”
He added, “Less people means more work for those who are left and things that don’t get done. It’s scary.”
Leaders focused on potentially asking the county commission to cut or reduce funding for outside agencies: the Boone County Health Department, the Economic Development Corporation, Parks and Recreation and a senior nutrition program.
The four outside agencies cost the county $511,000, according to Randolph.
The mission of the Economic Development Corporation, according to its website, is to “aggressively work” toward economic and community growth in Boone County.
When community members questioned the outcomes of the Economic Development Corporation, Executive Director Kris Mitchell said that in the past five years, the agency brought in more than $500,000 in grants that funded sidewalk improvements, a recycling program, a heating system for the courthouse and more.
There was also talk of eliminating maintenance and lights at several county parks, which is costing the county well over $3,000 per year, according to Boone County Parks and Recreation Director Russell Thomas.
Boone County Clerk Sue Ann Zickefoos spoke out against the idea.
“These little communities don’t ask for much, so I’d leave that at the bottom,” she said. “You take the lights out of those communities and you’re asking for trouble to come.”
‘The hurt that’s about to happen’
Randolph said the county’s population sits around 21,000, down from 24,629 recorded in the last U.S. Census in 2010. School enrollment in 2018 dipped by about 200 from the previous school year.
But, he believed the population and decreased property tax revenue would stabilize next year. While the county saw a $14 million decrease in property tax revenue last year, he said the number didn’t drop as much as in previous years.
He emphasized the budget cuts needed to happen sooner rather than later.
“The longer we delay, the more percentage it will be,” Randolph said. “The goal is not to do this again next year.”
The county commission will meet Aug. 20 to discuss to formally propose budget cuts.
The three-member body has been tasked with making the hard cuts, including the jobs of neighbors and friends, in the coming months.
“You hate to see the decision you’re about to make cause the hurt that’s about to happen. For a lot of these folks, it’s their family’s only source of income and insurance,” Kuhn said.
“But, at the same time, we have to get our budget back on stable footing. I think we are seeing a light at the end of the tunnel.”