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Senate again passes bill to allow small counties to impose recreation fee to fund fire, EMS

MORGANTOWN – The Senate is once again trying to give small rural counties a tool to fund their fire and EMS services. SB 167 was among the bills that passed the Senate on Friday and headed to the House.

SB 167 would allow any county to impose a $1 health and safety fee on a list of specified tourism and recreation activities to put toward the cost of emergency readiness.

Funds from the fee would go into a dedicated account, and 60% would have to fund fire and EMS services, while 40% could be used to pay for critical infrastructure projects. The fee couldn’t be imposed inside a city that has an amusement tax.

The bill allows counties to seek a waiver on the 60%, to apply all of the fee revenue to critical infrastructure for up to three years.

The bill has been in the system for several years. Sen. Randy Smith, R-Tucker, has been lead sponsor.

Sen. Mark Maynard, R-Wayne, stood to oppose the bill. “It has nothing to do with the problems that Tucker County is facing with their EMS,” he said. Underfunded EMS services are a statewide problem.

There is no state structure to support EMS, he said, no needs assessment and no way to distribute money appropriately. And he signed the Americans for Tax Reform no-new-taxes pledge.

Smith said it isn’t just a Tucker County bill. He represents eight counties. But Tucker, for example, has just 6,500 residents and sees 32,000 tourists on the weekends, all putting pressure on EMS.

The fee isn’t a new tax, he said, it’s a toll for the counties. “We pass all these rules and regulations on to our counties, but we never give them any way or any means to fund what we push on our counties,” including EMS services.

The vote was 30-4. Maynard and three other Republicans opposed it. All local senators voted for it. Last year’s bill passed the Senate but died in the House.

SB 188 is the Mountain Homes Act, aimed at recruiting new businesses and workers to the state.

The bill creates the Mountain Homes Fund to enable the Economic Development Authority to provide guaranteed construction loans for residential housing projects where the lenders require the builders to have at least 50% of the funds, and the builders are unable to supply that.

The project must consist of at least six residential units with a combined appraised value of $800,000. The guarantee must not exceed $400,000, and total annual guarantees may not exceed $10 million. The Legislature may appropriate funds if it chooses.

The act would take effect Jan. 1, 2025, and run to Jan. 1, 2035. It passed 32-2 without debate. Two Republicans voted no.

HB 4850 deals with oil and gas personal property taxes. The issue made the news recently when it was discovered that a state Tax Department contractor miscalculated the tax valuations for oil and gas properties in eight counties, costing those counties more than $22.9 million all combined.

Assessors previously assessed oil and gas wells on a class system, but the state Supreme Court ruled that method unconstitutional in 2019 and the Legislature passed a bill in 2022 to require each property to be assessed individually; the mistakes occurred in 2023.

The thrust of the bill was to eliminate from the 2022 legislation the July 1, 2025, sunset for the new method, making it permanent.

Sen. Laura Chapman, R-Ohio, said it would be better to wait on passing this bill, given that a number of lawsuits are pending.

Sen. Charles Clements, R-Wetzel, spoke both for and against the bill. The Legislature passed the bill creating the new formula two years ago because there was none. But the Tax Department made major errors administering the tax assessments.

The legislation is not perfect, but the bugs can be worked out, he said. “The worst thing we can do is allow this bill to sunset,” he said, referring to the 2022 legislation. That would spark all sorts of lawsuits.

Clements called on Finance chair Eric Tarr, R-Putnam, to meet with stakeholders and come up with a better formula by next session.

But because Wetzel County was one of those that suffered because of the errors – it lost about $1.57 million in taxes – he had to vote against the bill.

The vote was 28-6 and, unamended by the Senate, it goes to the governor.