By BILL ARCHER
Bluefield Daily Telegraph
According to Gordon Lambert, president of the McDowell County Commission, a misplaced decimal point led to a misunderstanding that brought a crowd of nearly 200 people out to the commission’s budget meeting Thursday night. But even if that was the case, the vocal crowd unloaded on the commission on several issues that apparently had been stuck in the public’s craw for some time.
“I hate that the wrong figure got out (in the media),” Lambert said to the packed courtroom. The crowd that numbered 189 people overflowed the commission meeting room, spilled out into the hallway and stretched out to Wyoming Street before the commission decided to move the venue to Circuit Court Judge Rudolph J. Murensky II’s courtroom. Lambert said that the 9 percent tax increase was incorrect. “The proposal was .9 of a percent ... not even 1 percent.”
At Lambert’s request, McDowell County Assessor Dennis Altizer explained that state law prohibits a commission from increasing taxes by more than 3 percent. Altizer also explained that McDowell County’s tax rates have remained low because of coal and natural gas severance fees.
“Folks, there won’t be any rate increase,” Lambert said as he looked out on the crowd. “There’s not going to be an increase. We have to turn in a balanced budget,” he said. “All offices in the county are going to take a 5 percent cut.”
Several people fired questions at the commission members, mostly concerning their stewardship of county funds. Commissioner Harold McBride explained that the commission provides funds for county offices, but each department determines how those funds are spent. He said that during difficult times, he believes in cutting expenses.
“I didn’t vote for raising taxes,” McBride said. “My plan was to cut 5 percent across the board.”
McDowell County Sheriff Martin West asked why the county has not implemented a cost-cutting plan recommended by the County Manager Clif Moore in January. He said that his concerns about the lack of protective gear for deputies came out during a press conference he held after a meth bust. “Your response was that you didn’t know we had a meth problem,” West said to Lambert.
“Folks, I’m not in law enforcement,” Lambert said, adding that he was aware of a meth bust some years ago in Carswell Hollow, but he wasn’t aware that it was a problem.
Several people in the crowd spoke out in support of West, while several blasted the commission president. West emphasized that his deputies need “basic equipment” like uniforms and vehicles. A female shouted that the commission needed to protect deputies. She also asked how much equipment $40,000 would buy — starting a string of questions that referenced the same amount.
West said that he was able to find a $7,000 grant that had not been used by the previous sheriff and received a pledge from a coal operator in the county who would match that amount. The Reverend Harold Calloway from Upland said that he personally witnessed a time when West couldn’t send a deputy to respond to a complaint because there were no operating vehicles available.
Cathy Patton, McDowell County Commission person responded to the “$40,000 picture taker” comments by saying that she writes articles for the “Welch News,” and also places articles on the county web site. “I am a conduit for information,” Patton said. She also said emphatically that she doesn’t make $40,000 and told the people making comments to “get your facts straight.” She added: “I am not a picture taker.”
Dennis Sizemore, county accountant announced the figures associated with a $4.9 million budget and the department-by-department breakdown. Several in the audience responded to the line item for a dog warden. Lambert said the county dog warden was released a few months earlier. Another man questioned the loss of a rescue squad in the Sandy River District.
“I know you all came to roast me,” Lambert said. “The wrong information got out.”
Donna Barker stood and showed a deputy sheriff’s pay stub revealing a take-home pay of $697 for 80 hours. “He has a couple of children,” she said.
Ken Fowler asked why the federal prison, Stevens Correctional Center and McDowell Landfill didn’t help the county. Lambert replied that many of the teachers working in the schools and as many as half of the coal miners don’t live in McDowell County.
Debbie King commended the crowd for turning out for the meeting. “We should have people like this every month,” she said.
After the meeting, Ronnie Collins pledged $1,000 to help the sheriff’s department acquire a new vehicle. “We’ve had nothing but negative comments here,” he said. “We’ve got to help ourselves.”
Dennis Altizer showed the media a document that appeared to be a proposal for a 9 percent tax increase. “I don’t see any decimal point,” he said. “If you figure the amount of the proposed increase, it comes out to 9 percent,” he added.