Following city election, Morgantown Council talking taxes, annexation

MORGANTOWN — With the Morgantown City Council election results less than 24 hours old, council took up a pair of items on Wednesday sure to generate plenty of discourse in the coming weeks — annexation and taxes.
After a roughly 90-minute conversation that included a pointed exchange between Mayor Bill Kawecki and 5th Ward Councilor Ron Dulaney, council opted to move ahead with a potential plan of attack  for the annexation of roughly three square miles by minor boundary adjustment.
The timeline presented by City Manager Paul Brake includes consideration of the city’s proposed annexation application at the May 7 and 21 council meetings, followed by a month-long public written comment period through the city’s website and, ultimately, presentation of the application to the Monongalia County Commission in July or August.
In early April, a financial analysis examining the financial impact of annexing just over three square miles, including, among others, areas like Suncrest Towne Centre, the Mileground and Haymaker Forest, became public. All told, there are about a dozen areas at varying points around the city’s boundary being considered.
The annexation areas  in the original report included 336 businesses representing 6,072 employees and approximately 43 miles of roads. According to the report, the city could expect a gross annual revenue increase of $3.9 million if all of the identified areas are annexed.
The information presented Wednesday also considered two additional areas — Scott Avenue and Collins Ferry Road near Suncrest Elementary School. The Collins Ferry addition includes three  possible options encompassing varying amounts of land.
Brake noted the plan remains a work in progress.
Much of council’s discussion boiled down to three questions.
One, why is the city moving to annex this land and grow the 10.5-square-mile city footprint by a little less than a third by minor boundary adjustment and not through petition or referendum, both of which require buy-in to varying degrees by city residents and/or those being annexed?
City Attorney Ryan Simonton said the type of annexation plan the city is opting to present represents “a best practice use” of the minor boundary process as it is designed to streamline annexation efforts in the case that presenting an election for annexation would be onerous.
“In this case, considering these amounts of territory, it seems there are likely some difficulties in counting what are termed ‘qualified voters’ under the annexation code and determining when a majority would be obtained in the annexation area and in the city,” Simonton said, noting this process allows for public feedback without being overly burdensome on the city.
Councilor Ryan Wallace questioned why the city wouldn’t divide its annexation plan into pieces to be presented to the county commission instead of risking having the whole thing rejected by presenting it all at once, as Brake has recommended.
Brake said presenting the plan all at once is the most efficient option. He also noted breaking the plan into pieces could potentially allow the county commission to pick and choose which annexation applications it approved based on what would be economically or politically expedient for the commission to remove from the county.
“You’re setting us up for a situation that they will present where there is the highest cost that they have. So, from a public safety perspective, where there’s increased costs for the sheriff’s department and the like, and there would not be the revenues to coincide with that. In that instance, it is putting a strain on the operation,” Brake said. “This has to be an arrangement that’s self-supporting.”
Third, Dulaney asked whether the city planned to make a concerted effort to make the case for annexation, explaining that instead of just saying annexed areas will receive better services, the city needs to provide hard data on how much better those services would be and why that is the case.
While Brake said the city did intend to make information available online, Kawecki said he questioned whether someone who chose to strategically locate a development just beyond the city’s boundaries could ever be convinced to support annexation if it resulted in them paying into the city they’re benefiting from.
After a series on increasingly intense exchanges, Kawecki asked, “Well, you tell me, who is it that you want to convince?” To which Dulaney replied, “As many as we can.”
Council ultimately opted to move the issue forward for consideration, noting, as Councilor Barry Wendell pointed out,  it’s an ambitious undertaking and one likely to be contentious.
“I’m not sure that we shouldn’t just be bold and go ahead with this and do it, and if we have to take the county to court, then we can do that,” Wendell said. “We’ve studied this. We’ve gone over it. The information is out there. I’m not sure how many more people we’re going to convince.”
Also on Wednesday, council discussed the implementation of a 1 percent municipal sales tax that, conservatively estimated, would generate $5 million to $6 million annually for the city.
If approved, the tax would not take effect until July  2020.
Morgantown was granted the authority to implement such a tax as part of its original Home Rule application, approved in 2014. A previous council opted to go with the $3 weekly user fee instead.
Funds generated by the tax would be used to address capital improvements for BOPARC ($1.25 million), address police and fire pensions ($1.25 million) and $250,000 for  city employee retirement benefits (OPEB).
Additionally, funds would be placed into the city’s financial stabilization fund.
As mandated through Home Rule, the implementation of the tax would need to come with reductions in B&O taxes. In Morgantown’s case, those reductions would likely be in the categories of retail — from .5 percent to .45 percent — and service — from 1 percent to .9 percent.
Those reductions would amount to approximately $600,000 to $700,000 annually, Brake said. A plan to eliminate the B&O taxes on manufacturing as a  part of this implementation was scrapped.
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