Mon County sees year of refurbished spaces and fresh agreements

MORGANTOWN — A longstanding legal question surrounding the taxation of public/private enterprises was among the top stories in Monongalia County in 2018, as was the opening of a new track facility at Mylan Park, the unveiling of a new county courthouse square and the announcement of an EMS merger between Mon EMS and WVU Hospitals.

A county square

What a difference a year and $2.1 million made to the Monongalia County Courthouse square.

In May, right at a year after it was closed to the public, the Monongalia County Commission hosted a rededication of the square after a complete, and pricey, overhaul of the space.

While the square is easily the most expensive and visible project at the Monongalia County Courthouse, it’s certainly not the only one.

When the county’s courts moved down High Street to the Monongalia County Justice Center in 2015, the county began a plan to overhaul and fill the newly available courthouse space by moving and/or expanding a number of offices.

Initially, the county assessor’s office moved from the second floor into empty court space on the third floor, allowing the commission office and chambers to expand to fill the assessor’s old digs.

Updates and expansion of the county clerk’s office was completed this year and work to move the tax office next to the assessor on the third floor is under way.

The commission earmarked $170,000 for the clerk’s office last July. During that same meeting, an additional $170,000 was set aside to move the county tax office.

EMS merger

In November, it was announced that Monongalia Health System and WVU Hospitals are pooling resources to create one combined ambulance service in Monongalia County.

The agencies are working on the merger, which is expected to be completed in the spring.

Under the terms of the agreement, WVU Hospitals Health-Team Critical Care Transport operations in the county will be transferred to Mon EMS. After the two entities are combined, Mon EMS will be jointly managed and operated by Mon Health System and WVU Hospitals.

The new entity will be branded under the name Mon EMS. Logos of both Mon Health Medical Center and WVU Medicine will appear on the ambulances.

The new setup will move away from the decades-old contract through which Mon EMS was the county’s primary provider and therefore always the first agency notified.

Changes to the longstanding EMS setup were set in motion earlier this year when WVU Hospitals announced HealthTeam Critical Care Transport and began stationing ambulances in outlying areas of the county, prompting residents to ask why crews were being dispatched from Morgantown despite the closer alternative.

The commission attempted to address those concerns in May by splitting the county into six EMS zones and initiating a move toward a CAD-based system. Even so, residents in some areas continued to call on the county to reduce response times.

Under the new combined agency, vehicles will be dispatched based on their proximity to the call.

On the right track

Dozens of spectators were bundled against a light rain Oct. 26 to take in the official opening of the $7 million track facility, at 1835 Fitness Way in Mylan Park.

The sounds of construction could be heard from the nearby aquatic center, which along with the track complex will make up the Mountaineer Center. The $35 million aquatic center is expected to open next fall.

The project is a collaborative effort between Mylan Park, the Hazel Ruby McQuain Charitable Trust, WVU, the Monongalia County Commission, the Monongalia County Board of Education, the Greater Morgantown Convention and Visitor’s Bureau and various other stakeholders.

Both the track and aquatic facilities will be home to WVU athletics, as well as local school teams. Both will also include amenities specifically for the community, including the 1/3-mile walking surface surrounding the competition track and field event structures.

The Mylan Park Foundation financed the Mountaineer Center projects and will own the facilities.

No taxable value

On Nov. 8, the West Virginia Supreme Court ruled on behalf of University Park at Evansdale in a multi-year legal battle with the Monongalia County Assessor’s office regarding the tax liability of the property for the 2015 tax year.

In a 34-page, 5-0 decision issued by Justice Beth Walker, the court said the proper valuation for the $90 million public-private student housing development near WVU’s Evansdale Campus is zero.

Even so, the assessor’s office could have pushed ahead with litigation pertaining to the 2016, 2017 and 2018 tax years. Counsel for the county advised against doing so.

In the public, private setup, the university owns the land; the property is leased to the developer, who pays for the construction of the project. The facility is then subleased back to WVU for the purposes of offering, managing and operating the student housing. As a state entity, WVU has no tax liability.

Musick assessed the lease for University Park at more than $9 million for the 2015 tax year, kicking off a legal scrum during which the case had multiple appearances before the Monongalia County Commission sitting as the board of equalization and review, the Monongalia County Circuit Court and the WVSC.

The issue now becomes how to go about refunding taxes paid by UPE and another public/private — West Virginia Campus Housing — since 2015; taxes that upon the direction of the West Virginia Auditor’s Office were distributed by the county.

BConley@DominionPost.com

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