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SU annex plans not brand new

By Staff | Oct 30, 2009

The idea of annexing Shepherd University’s West Campus dormitories has a long history in Shepherdstown. Annexation of surrounding communities to raise revenue has been a recurring campaign issue raised by Mayor Jim Auxer throughout his political history in Shepherdstown. Procedurally, it can trace its roots back to a series of actions taken in early 2003, when officials from both Shepherd University and Shepherdstown initiated annexation talks that involved the entire West Campus property.

The motivations behind the annexation movement can be traced back to the approval of slot machine gambling in Jefferson County. A flurry of annexation and residential development in Charles Town and Ranson, a coinciding lack of annexation and residential development in Shepherdstown, and the method by which slot machine tax revenues are distributed between the municipalities of Jefferson County threatens to cut, according to local state Delegate John Doyle, up to half-a-million dollars from Shepherdstown’s coffers if the West Campus dorms are not brought into Shepherdstown by the time the 2010 Census gets underway.

Mayor Auxer and state Delegate John Doyle, D-Jefferson, say the long-term viability of Shepherdstown’s local municipal government is at risk unless Shepherdstown finds a way to increase revenue. Opponents of the move wonder how students might influence politics in Shepherdstown, noting that if the annexation is successful, residential students would outnumber year-round residents.

2000 Census data controversy

mirrors current situation

Back in 1996, Jefferson County voters approved a referendum allowing video slot machines at Charles Town Races and Slots. One percent of the tax revenues generated by slot machine activities at CTRS is split among the five municipalities of Jefferson County according to population at the last U.S. census.

Five years later, the government of Shepherdstown, headed by first term Mayor Jim Auxer, was made intimately aware of the very same financial pressures which motivate the current annexation proposal.

In January 2001, the Census 2000 data for Shepherdstown was released. It bore a shocking error: Census officials had not counted over 400 residents living in the East Campus dorms as residents of Shepherdstown. This reduced Shepherdstown’s municipal population from 1,200 on the 1990 census to just 800. As a result, Shepherdstown suffered a cut in video lottery funds until it successfully appealed the Census 2000 data. According to state law, lottery revenue not allocated to Shepherdstown during the appeal process cannot be recouped.

A little over two years later, Shepherdstown initiated talks with Shepherd College to annex the West Campus.

On Feb. 13, 2003, the Shepherd College Board of Governors assembled for their regular meeting in the Cumberland Room at Shepherd’s College Center. Among the documents which they would be reviewing was a letter from Mayor Jim Auxer, seven months into his second term as mayor of Shepherdstown. During this meeting, and because of Auxer’s letter, the Board of Governors gave the president of the college, then David Dunlop and now Suzanne Shipley, the authority to initiate annexation proceedings.

Referenced as “Agenda Item No. 11 – Annexation request by Corporation of Shepherdstown”, the Board of Governors recorded in their minutes that “Mayor James Auxer of Shepherdstown has written to the College requesting that the entirety of East Campus and West Campus become included in the corporate limits.”

The Board of Governors noted that Shepherdstown’s interest in the annexation is to include all resident students of Shepherd University in future Federal Census counts. The minutes go on to note that this “would enhance the Corporation’s ability to gain federal grants and State Lottery distributions.”

By the time the meeting was over, the president of the college had the power to, as recorded in the minutes of the Board of Governors, “take such actions and to sign such documents as he determines appropriate to seek and obtain the annexation of the West Campus into the corporate limits of Shepherdstown.”

Then-President David Dunlop seems to have acted fast on the issue. According to the minutes of the April, 2003 Shepherdstown Town Council meeting, two months after the Board of Governors read Auxer’s letter, Dunlop had responded with a “formal request” for the corporation to annex the entire West Campus property. A motion by Council member Howard Mills, who still serves on the Council, to move forward with the legal work for annexing the West Campus was carried unanimously.

Nothing seems to have come of that proposal, most likely because it doesn’t appear to fall into any of the three methods allowed in West Virginia state law by which a city may annex a territory; by election, by petition, or by minor boundary adjustment. Last week, Shepherd University legal counsel Alan Perdue confirmed that Shepherd was unaware of any legal requirement to canvas or poll the West Campus residents until July of this year. The proposal was soon almost entirely forgotten. Perdue, Auxer, and Mills all had no independent recollection of the 2003 West Campus annexation proceedings.

“I don’t have an independent recollection of that,” reports Perdue, “however, I’m sure I would have been aware of any letter which Dunlop wrote to the Town Council at that time.”

For a variety of reasons, University officials did not attempt another annexation until this summer.

“At some point after President Suzanne Shipley became President of Shepherd, we had discussions about moving forward with annexations,” reports Perdue.

This time around, the University is attempting an annexation by petition. Where the 2003 annexation talks called for all of West Campus to be annexed into Shepherdstown, the 2009 annexation petition only includes a narrow strip of land surrounding the 11 West Campus residences. It does not include any of the undeveloped open spaces in West Campus.

Charles Town, Ranson, grow by annexation & development as

Shepherdstown looks on

Since the year 2000, Ranson has annexed 38 new territories into their borders, totaling over 1,500 acres of land. According to a 2008 US Census population estimate, Ranson has increased it’s population by 34 percent, up from 2,951 to 3,957.

According to documents from the city of Charles Town, between 2002 and 2008 alone, Charles Town annexed 2,677 acres of land, with a potential to hold 9,816 residential units. According to a 2008 population estimate from the US Census Bureau, the population has jumped at least 63 percent from 2,907 to 4,765. Charles Town officials say that most of the population growth of the last 10 years has come through new development on annexed lands.

Whereas Charles Town and Ranson have grown significantly over the last decade, Shepherdstown’s municipal population has remained relatively static. Corrected Census 2000 data lists Shepherdstown as having 1,202 residents, 803 townies and 399 resident students on East Campus. The 2008 US Census Population Estimate shows Shepherdstown’s population in a slight decline, down 56 to 1,146.

If the 2010 Census finds similar numbers to their 2008 population estimate, Charles Town will be entitled to 42 percent of municipal video lottery funds for the next decade, up from 34 percent. Ranson would see a slight increase, up from 35.08 percent to 35.21 percent for the next decade. Shepherdstown stands to lose over 4 percent of their share of municipal video lottery funds, dropping to 10.19 percent from 14.29 percent. With the addition of 633 West Campus residents, Shepherdstown’s share jumps up to 14.37

In fiscal year 2009, a total of over $3,622,000 in video lottery funds were split among the five municipalities in Jefferson County. Shepherdstown’s share amounted to over $517,000. Had Shepherdstown only been eligible to receive 10.19 percent of the 2009 video lottery funds, that revenue stream would have been cut by over $148,000. Shepherdstown uses video lottery funds to finance large capitol projects and infrastructure development.

This issue has not gone unreported in the local media. As early as 2006, local state Del. John Doyle was highlighting, in local newspaper columns, the financial threat which the rapid growth of Charles Town and Ranson presented to the finances of smaller towns in the county at the next Census. One of Doyle’s columns, published on Dec. 29, 2006 in the Shepherdstown Chronicle, warned that Shepherdstown’s video lottery would be cut unless the town acted fast.

“If Shepherdstown doesn’t annex more people soon,” wrote Doyle, “I fear a move may arise in the next decade or so, to ‘unincorporate’, as Middleway did over a century ago. Then all of Shepherdstown will be governed by the County Commission, and all its planning done by the county planning commission. Neither group is equipped to manage what is, in reality, a town.”