Jefferson County Commissioners were faced with a full house last Thursday when citizens came out to voice concerns about cuts to a variety of departments in the county budget.
A large portion of those who spoke during the meeting were upset about the cuts to the arts, specifically a 50 percent reduction in funding to the Arts and Humanities Alliance (AHA!). AHA! Currently receives a very small portion of the hotel/motel tax, along with the Historic Landmarks Commission, who also saw their allocation cut by 50 percent. A portion of the tax making up a total of 50 percent is added to these two allocations and is given to the Jefferson County Parks and Recreation. The remaining 50 percent of the total tax goes, by State Code direction, to the county's Convention and Visitor's Bureau.
Commissioners decided last week to reduce the allocation to AHA! and Historic Landmarks, give that share back to Parks and Recreation and then cut the amount from the Parks' allocation request from the county's budget. The county is prohibited by State Code to allocate the hotel/motel tax to general budget revenues; it must go to parks, arts or similar areas.
Ginny Fite, president of AHA!, spoke to commissioners, sharing with them the work that group has done to promote the arts, especially through grant to such organizations as the Contemporary American Theater Festival, The Art of the Bus project, Goose Route Arts Collaborative and others.
"The arts are a tourism and economic driver," Fite said.
Regina Foster echoed the sentiment telling commissioners that the arts are a small investment for a large return.
Support for libraries was also very strong as many spoke on the benefit of the local libraries providing literacy programs, children's programs, computer access for adults and much more.
Curt Mason, a member of the board of directors for the South Jefferson Public Library, voiced his concern that the lowest funded organizations were taking the biggest cuts.
"Something's wrong with the picture when the county doesn't see the importance of libraries," said Hali Taylor, director of the Shepherdstown Public Library.
Cuts to the parks and recreation system also drew comments as Jeff Bayliss, with the Summit Point Baseball League, explained the necessity of providing recreation and sports space for the county's youth. While his league raises and much money as possible and provides volunteer services as well, he said that to raise costs to participants would be devastiang.
"I already have 40 hardship cases this year. If we can't maintain the parks and have to raise fees, we will deny these kids an ability to play."
The strong call to support youth was a consistent theme throughout the evening's testimony as parks, libraries and the arts are all important to the well-rounded development of the future leaders of the community.
Also addressed were cuts to the Emergency Services Agency who face a 20 percent cut in funding resulting in the potential loss of five and one half positions, including paid emergency medical staff.
Tamara Trafford, a paramedic with the JCESA, voiced frustration with the proposed JCESA budget cuts.
"In the past when I've come before you, I've been able to give you some kind of organized statement," she said. "Tonight, all I can come up with is, 'What the heck are you thinking?'"
Trafford said the county's decision to reduce its ambulance allocation by 20 percent and its fire allocation by 12.5 percent "puts every citizen in the county at risk."
While each speaker gave a heartfelt message, the commissioners , in their closing remarks, gave little hope for revisions to the proposed budget for fiscal year 2015.
"We ask you to realize the cuts have to come from somewhere," said Commission President Walt Pellish. "We've got to be fiscally responsible."
"This county will live within its financial resources, period," Pellish said. He added that he would not advocate raiding the capital fund, cutting staff or raising taxes.