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Passage of school levy is key

October 8, 2010
By Delegate John Doyle, The Doyle Report

Normally I do not refer to elections in this column, even ones in which I'm involved. I think this column should be reserved for explaining in detail issues that have been or will be before the West Virginia Legislature.

While this installment is an exception, I believe it can be justified. The decision, whichever it is, made by the voters of Jefferson County on Nov. 2 as to the renewal of our public school excess levy will reverberate in the halls of the state capitol in Charleston.

The reason we have an "excess" levy on the ballot is that West Virginia has a constitutional cap on the property tax which was passed in 1932. There was a well-publicized controversy in California in the 1980s which resulted in that state passing a property tax limitation initiative.

West Virginia's state constitution was the source of much of the language.

The only way property taxes can "exceed" the constitutional limit is by referendum. Even with the referendum, those taxes may only exceed the maximum by 100 percent. We couldn't go higher than that even with a unanimous vote of the people, and I can't remember a public election being unanimous.

Jefferson County's excess levy is now at 100 percent, the absolute maximum allowed by the state constitution. It's one of the few counties in West Virginia that has a school levy that high, and it hasn't been that high for very long.

I think it's important that our excess levy remain at 100 percent because it dramatizes to folks elswhere in West Virginia that we are doing everything possible on our own to have good public schools. It was an argument I used in support of the "housing study" bill in the House of Delegates this year, and it definitely helped pass that very important bill.

The housing study law mandates that the Department of Revenue conduct annually a county-by-county study of housing costs around the state each year and report the findings to the Legislature in January.

We wanted that bill to help dramatize the need for paying public school employees and state workers here in the Eastern Panhandle more money than their counterparts in most of West Virginia because it costs more to live here than it does elsewhere in the state.

That extra money would most likely take the form of a housing allowance for state employees and either that or increased "local share" for public school employees. If we can pass such a change it will help us keep more of our valued workers from leaving for much higher paying jobs in Maryland and Virginia.

I believe we are right on the cusp of getting some kind of extra pay for the teachers, cooks, janitors, professors, troopers, corrections officers, human service caseworkers and other state workers here in the Eastern Panhandle. If the school excess levy is defeated, we would be pulling the rug right out from under ourselves.

Some opponents of renewing the levy argue that the approval of table games at the Charles Town Races means we don't need the money from the levy anymore. That's a specious argument.

The money our schools get from table games may only be used for capital improvements. No money from the excess levy goes to capital improvements. That money goes primarily to salaries and employee benefits, but small amounts go toward the arts, athletics, textbooks and classroom supplies.

We have bond levy referenda for capital improvements. Arguing that table games money means we might not need a particular bond issue would make sense. In fact, the school board has stated that table games will significantly reduce the need for bond referenda in the forseeable future.

But arguing that we can do without the excess levy because of table games is way wide of the mark.

It's true that some money from the REGULAR levy has gone to capital improvements, and can be shifted to other things if the predictions about the amount of money our local schools get from table games come true over the long term. But it's a very small amount of money and the regular levy isn't what's being voted on. We're voting on the excess levy.

Most of the money from the regular levy displaces money from the state aid formula. For every dollar the regular levy raises for our schools here in Jefferson County, 90 cents is taken from our share of state school-aid money. The state used to take back 98 cents of every dollar raised by the regular levy. We in Jefferson County's delegation were overjoyed a couple of years ago when we got that 2 percent we keep without displacing state money raised to 10 percent.

By contrast, not one penny of the excess levy going to our schools causes a loss of state aid.

For these reasons I strongly urge the passage of the school excess levy. It won't raise anybody's taxes, but it will keep a desperately needed stream of revenue for our schools here in Jefferson County.



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