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SU annex first reading delayed

By Staff | Oct 16, 2009

Public meeting to be held Oct. 22 at 6:30 p.m. at the Entler Hotel

The Town Council has delayed a first reading of a petition to annex 10 dormitories on Shepherd University’s West Campus into the municipal borders of Shepherdstown.

Concerns about the political implications of adding 633 college students to Shepherdstown’s potential electorate and confusion among council members and the public over how video lottery funds are distributed among the cities in Jefferson County helped force the delay.

Instead, the Town Council scheduled a public hearing for Thursday, Oct. 22, at 6:30 p.m. at the Entler Hotel to allow the public more time to voice opinions on the proposed annexation.

The first reading of the annexation petition has been rescheduled for the week of Oct. 26, with the second reading still scheduled for the regular Nov. 10 Town Council meeting at 104 N. King St. If the measure passes the second reading, the annexation must then also be approved by the Jefferson County Commission.

The Town Council was peppered with questions from the public and from within its own ranks about the annexation.

Shepherdstown resident and Shepherd University art professor Sonya Evanisko doesn’t think that the citizens of Shepherdstown have had their voice heard in the matter and expressed concern about the annexation, noting that if the annexation is approved, residents of Shepherdstown proper could see themselves outnumbered by university students during municipal elections.

“What would student priorities be?” Asked Evanisko, rhetorically. “For the students, it’s a parking garage on East Campus. It’s not the quality of their education, it’s parking. The concerns of a student in a dorm are different from the concerns of a resident who’s lived here for years, who’s invested in the community.”

Evanisko worries students could use their voting power to pack the Town Council with members sympathetic to student issues and show little regard for the interests of non-student residents of Shepherdstown.

Mayor Auxer, considering these objections, noted that Shepherdstown already has over 400 students in its population living on East Campus, and they have not flexed their voting muscle. He also noted that the election takes place after the academic year in June, when most dormitories are empty. The most recent town election was held June 6. Early voting, open to any registered voter, started May 14. During the academic year, the West Campus dorms considered for annexation hold over 600 students. In the summer, the population of West Campus is about 30.

Evanisko replied “with the click of a button they can get 1,000 people out to Relay for Life, they could easily get 1,000 to show up one one day in June. It will happen.”

Council member Howard Mills suggested that, to stave off a sudden surge in student-oriented municipal populism, the Town Council could pass a law requiring people holding elected office to be over the age of 21. Council member Stuart Wallace was surprised by this idea, as he was unaware the Town Council had the power to enact such a law.

Mayor Auxer says that annexing the West Campus dorms is critical to maintaining Shepherdstown’s share of video lottery funding, which is used for big ticket purchases like dump trucks and capitol improvements such as streetscape. Under the current video lottery law, Jefferson County receives 2 percent of the tax revenue generated by video lottery activities. That 2 percent is then split in half, with 1 percent going to the county government, and the other 1 percent divided among the five municipalities in Jefferson County, according to population as recorded on the most recent U.S. Census. Shepherdstown, with its population listed at 803 on the last census in 2001, currently receives 14.29 percent of the 1 percent allocated to county municipalities. Last fiscal year that 14.29 percent equaled $498,935 in net video lottery terminal income, or about $621 dollars per person, using the 2000 population as a base.

However, a new census is on the horizon, scheduled to begin next June. Once the new numbers are released sometime late next year, the updated populations of the five incorporated municipalities in Jefferson County means that the 14.29 percent share of the allocated video lottery funds will change. Mayor Auxer says that without the annexation of the West Campus dorms, Shepherdstown’s share of video lottery funds would drop to 10 percent. The reason for this, says Auxer, is that Ranson and Charles Town have, over the last 10 years, increased their populations by annexation to such a degree that they will take a much larger share of the 1 percent of video lottery funds split among the municipalities.

Auxer says that if we annex the West Campus dorms and its 633 citizens, Shepherdstown’s share of video lottery funds will essentially stay the same, bumping up slightly from 14.29 to 14.37 percent of funds designated for county municipalities.

Evanisko noted that the entire argument for annexation hinges on video lottery funds. She was critical of making a decision based on video lottery funding alone, noting that the amount changes from year to year, depending on how many people are gambling, and could potentially disappear altogether should Charles Town Races and Slots ever cease operations.