Mon County Commission renews rent request

MORGANTOWN — With the entire West Virginia Supreme Court the focus of impeachment hearings as a result of lavish spending and corruption, the Monongalia County Commission is prepared to once again ask the court to consider what constitutes “reasonable” rent in downtown Morgantown.

The commission and the West Virginia Supreme Court (WVSC) have been at odds about the rate the state is willing to pay for space in the Monongalia County Justice Center since the run-up to the building’s opening, in 2015.

State code (51-2a-20) mandates the WVSC will pay county commissions “a reasonable amount” for space provided to accommodate family court.

The county and the state stopped agreeing on the definition of “reasonable” in April 2015, when the commission informed the court that its rent would jump from $12 a square foot to $18 upon moving from the former magistrate building to the new justice center. The WVSC took exception, explaining it already paid Monongalia County the highest rate in the state.

Steve Canterbury, former administrative director for the WVSC, asked the county to provide an appraisal. The county obliged, and the appraisal came back at between $20 and $25 per square foot. The county asked for $20.

Once again the court balked at the asking price and asked for another appraisal — this one with stated comparables. That appraisal came back indicating it would cost $24.90 a square foot to rent similar space in downtown Morgantown, so that’s what the county started asking for.

In December 2015, Canterbury responded with a letter explaining that given the court’s financial situation, doubling the rent payments to Monongalia County “simply cannot be supported by our current appropriation.”

Canterbury also explained that he based his definition of “reasonable” on what the state pays other urban counties.

This prompted former Commissioner Eldon Callen to note both “shall” and “reasonable” have been defined “through 200 years of case law.”

Callen said Canterbury’s letter essentially says Monongalia County can’t ask for a reasonable amount because the court doesn’t pay anybody a reasonable amount.

“That’s illogical and embarrassing, I think, for him and for the supreme court,” Callen said at the time.

Since February 2016, the county has billed the WVSC at $24.90 for the 5,780 square feet used by the family court — and the court has paid the formerly agreed-on rate of $12.

During a recent commission session, Commissioner Ed Hawkins said the claims of budget constraints have taken on a new shine in light of $32,000 couches, $2,000 throw pillows and impeachment hearings.

“It should be reconsidered because our county has provided something of value to the Supreme Court. Their complaint, of course, was that they had no money,” Hawkins said. “Obviously this seems to be something that was not really an issue of truthfulness.”

Commission President Tom Bloom raised the issue, explaining he would like to send a letter and the previous correspondence between the county and the court to Gov. Jim Justice as well as Senate President Mitch Carmichael and the county’s Senate representatives.

The commission voted unanimously to do so.

Bloom previously said that if the court pays $12 and not $24.90 as indicated by the requested appraisal, the county would lose out on nearly $2 million during the 25-year life of the justice center bonds.

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