WELCH — Members of the McDowell County Commission are set to meet Wednesday and try to make a decision about this year’s budget, but still don’t know if they can avoid further cuts.
With an operating budget of $4.9 million this year, the expenses have so far exceeded the revenue, forcing the county to consider cuts in personnel and salaries as well as putting off paying bills.
“We’ve got a tough road ahead of us,” said Commissioner Cody Estep Friday. “We are looking at everything. We are in a critical situation.”
Commissioners recently postponed a decision on the budget until Wednesday, when they hope the county will have a better grip on expected income from the coal severance tax and personal property tax.
Estep said they are already behind about $200,000 on paying the jail bill, which takes between $55,000 to $60,000 a month from the budget.
“But we have to get caught up,” he said. “We can’t keep not paying these bills. Bill collectors are knocking on the door.”
Payrolls have to be met, though, and that’s $140,000 every two weeks.
Estep said money may have to be borrowed from coal severance just to meet the payroll, much less pay off late bills.
It’s been a consistent scenario for years as the county has lost businesses, jobs, population and a tax base.
Commission President Cecil Patterson said a chunk of the money from county personal property and real estate taxes should come in later this month.
“That’s when we will look at the budget (for the entire year),” he said, adding that the budget has decreased along with revenue.
For example, the budget for the 2015-16 fiscal year was $6.8 million, he said, falling to $5 million in 2017-18 and to $4.9 million this year.
A 10-percent cut across the board in each department helped make up the difference.
However, Patterson said if any more cuts are needed the ultimate decision is made by the commissioners.
“At the end of the day, the commission will have to decide if there is a cut and where the cuts are at,” he said.
Sheriff Martin West, who is also county treasurer, said he has already lost five deputy positions and depends on the West Virginia State Police for all the coverage at night and much of it during the day.
With only 10 deputies and two on medical leave and one on the drug task force, West said the deputies can barely handle the required services related to courts, mental hygiene calls and prisoner transportation.
“This (required services) is ongoing,” he said. “We have to do that first. We don’t have enough for highway patrol.”
Sometimes everyone is so busy, there’s no one available to respond, he added, with only six deputies left to run two shifts across a large county with no easy access to communities.
The county has in the past had a serious problems with opioids, but West said with the crackdown on opioid prescriptions the attention has shifted toward methamphetamines.
“We are getting more meth because that’s an easy drug for them to make,” he said. “Then they are acting so crazy because it burns their brains up and they are not normal people after they get on that stuff.”
West said he has spoken to many politicians and has been told the economic situation in the county won’t be fixed overnight.
“Well, we understand that,” he said. “But still, we are in an emergency situation here in this county.”
When McDowell County was booming with the coal industry, not only was the wealth shared around the state, but politicians would show up to get votes, he said.
But now, the county is alone and what grant money does come does not do much.
Del. Ed Evans (D-McDowell County) said it’s difficult to get attention in Charleston.
During the last session he said he spoke on the floor in front of the legislators and invited all of them to visit McDowell County to see the problems first-hand.
“Only one took me up on that offer,” he said. “I want people to understand there are resources up there. But it takes a team.”
However, there is no team even for the southern counties, he added, with both delegates and senators representing those counties not working together as a unified voice.
“We have a huge team,” he said. “But we can’t ever talk to each other.”
Evans said he recently saw Gov. Jim Justice and told him he has been trying unsuccessfully to get an appointment to see him.
Justice told one of his staff to set it up and get back to him within two weeks.
“I haven’t heard a thing, though,” he said.
Evans said he does talk with state Sen. Chandler Swope (R-6th District) and he knows that Swope is doing all he can do, including an initiative to clean up the county and eventually bring the needed infrastructure. But it’s a massive project that requires a state effort.
He also said he knows he can work well with the other legislators. It’s just a matter of everyone getting together as a unified voice.
For county officials, it has nothing to do with politics.
“I don’t care who it is or what party it is, I want to see something done for this county,” Estep said.
West said he has been frustrated working with politicians who often just give lip service.
“I got this from Sen. (Joe) Manchin’s office when we went to the White House last year,” West said. “He was campaigning … I said why can’t ya’ll pour some federal money into this county to help us get our feet on the ground so we can be doing the things we need to be doing (to spur economic development). He (Manchin) said, ‘What you need is the ARC (Appalachian Regional Commission),’ and I said, no, I know we need the ARC (for badly needed infrastructure projects) but I am saying that we have you, we need somebody in elected offices to help us. We need our representatives speaking up and not putting us off and that’s what Sen. Manchin done at that time. When he was governor, he was a good governor.”
West said one of the reasons the county doesn’t hear from politicians very much is population loss and politics.
“They don’t come down here, we don’t have enough votes,” he said. “They go up north, in the northern counties (with high populations). They go where the votes are.”
Regardless of where they go or don’t go, McDowell County’s problems are mostly being ignored, he said.
“We have fallen on hard times and people have left and lost their jobs and we have people on drugs,” West said, adding that every effort the county has made in recent years to get help has had few results. “It’s like we are starting new here. We have let things go on and now it’s at the point of life or death. We can’t wait five years, we need help right now. We need to get somebody’s attention.”
West said there simply is no other money coming in because of the lack of businesses and the county can’t continue to maintain the services it has.
With limited infrastructure, no four-lane highway and a dwindling tax base , as well as the coal industry seeing no substantial growth, Estep, who was elected to the commission last year, said the county should have tried to diversify years ago but nobody did anything.
“That has to change,” he said, adding that a new economic development director has been hired and will come on board soon.
But even with an aggressive effort to recruit businesses and jobs, the topography and lack of infrastructure are limiting.
Patterson said only certain areas of the county have essential infrastructure, like water and sewer, and flat land is limited.
“We have to make the flat land and then run the water and sewer to get there,” he said. “A $3 million project ends up being $11 million.”
Randy Davis, with the county’s Public Service District, said grant money does come to the county for needed infrastructure projects like water and sewer, but it takes so much to do so little and much of the money coming in goes toward fixing problems.
“They have given us millions and millions of dollars,” he said of those grants for infrastructure projects. “But it’s like everything else in this area. It takes $7 million to get clean drinking water to 50 people. The money doesn’t go far.”
Some people in Bradshaw are still carrying water in trucks, he said of the scope of the problem.
“It’s hard to get the community excited about getting high speed internet service when they don’t have clean drinking water,” he said, adding that it’s also difficult to tell people they are going to provide them sewer service, but they will have to pay a monthly bill when they have been piping the sewage into a stream for nothing.
Davis said when money is given for projects it may also involve things like endangered crawdads and bats, which takes part of the grant money to study the issue, money that could be used for buying pipe or paying contractors.
“Money does not go far when they hand it out,” he said. “We’ve gotten a lot of money but you can’t see it because it doesn’t go far.”
Patterson said the county is doing all it can with the resources it has and is also trying to do a better job of staying on top of everything with its own government, a practice that has been lacking in the past.
“We all need to be on the same page,” he said. “Everybody needs to know what everybody else is doing so we are not overlapping.”
“I don’t have the answers,” Estep said. “I am asking, what is the solution? We are in a critical situation. All of us are trying, even to get just one thing started. One thing.”
Evans said that the county needs to get some attention, not only for long-range goals, but short-term help to stay on its feet.
For that purpose, he is organizing a meeting and tour of the county with those in public office in Charleston and Washington who will be willing to attend, tentatively set for late October.
“We have to work together,” Evans said. “I will get as many people here that I can.”
Evans said he will meet with county leaders to set a date.
“We are not asking for handout,” West said. “We just need help to get on our feet.”
— Contact Charles Boothe at firstname.lastname@example.org