CHARLES TOWN – To kick off the New Year on Thursday, the Jefferson County Commission hosted a legislative summit as part of its regular meeting. Delegates Paul Espinosa, Wayne Clark and John Doyle joined the committee to debrief members on expectations and goals for 2022.
Among the issues addressed by state leaders were broadband services, financing of higher education, and the extent of local government control. Opening the discussion, Espinosa stressed that his constituents would always be welcome in Charleston without any restrictions, should any West Virginia wish to contact him in the months to come.
“Regarding who has access, the intention is to open the Capitol,” he explained. “If you have the opportunity to visit the Capitol or would like to meet with us, let us know you’re coming so we can make arrangements. As for the legislative session, we fully intend to be open as close as we have been in the past, and we do not anticipate any restrictions on visiting the Capitol.
“Our goal is to make local government accountable,” he continued. “I think it makes the government more responsive. I certainly believe that the more decisions are made with our constituents, the better. We are in a fairly good financial position. The governor has taken a very fiscally responsible approach. Everything indicates that when we see the governor’s budget on Wednesday we will see a stable budget. This year, I think we’re on the right track to approaching the $ 700 million to $ 750 million surplus, so we’ll see how that goes.
The topic of money was constant throughout the discussion as delegates and the committee discussed funding for education.
Espinosa advocated for funding higher education “rationally” and explained how he sought information regarding the funding of Shepherd and Blue Ridge, noting that he had never received a direct response as to why schools were at the bottom of the state funding list. .
Doyle, meanwhile, explained that he believed Gov. Jim Justice could afford to raise school employee salaries even more than he had already agreed to. While the Governor of Justice proposed a 5% increase for education workers, Doyle said he believed that number could increase to 7% without hurting the state budget.
“We have to be careful about this,” he warned. “We need to accurately assess how much of this budget surplus is real and ongoing. I think there was enough surplus in the budget that we could reach 7%. Higher education tends to take a long time to adjust to any change. It is the culmination of long-term work.
From there, the group discussed improvements to broadband Internet in Jefferson County. Doyle noted that he believed the county would see “serious action” on broadband issues before the end of the year. Part of the problem so far, he explained, is that maps showing where broadband service is available to residents are not particularly accurate in most cases.
As a result, Espinosa intervened to say that working with some local wireless service providers has been a “challenge”. He then reminded everyone that the Justice Government announced last year that the state plans to invest $ 1 billion in broadband infrastructure, which should help Jefferson County be operational for wireless services.
“If there is a road project, there is a process to install an underground conduit,” Espinosa said, referring to legislation aimed at improving broadband services in the region. “When we look back 10 years from now and ask what we got for those millions of dollars, I think we’re really taking that responsibility seriously, so that we can look back and say we’ve accomplished something that was quite transformational. We’ve already earmarked $ 50 million for that, and we’ll see hundreds of millions of dollars going into deployment. All the steps for this have been taken.
The question of state control over local government then arose when Commissioner Jane Tabb addressed solar agriculture. Although she noted that she is a farmer, she also explained that she sees solar farming as an opportunity for local farming businesses. That said, she was adamant that she thought a state solar installation wouldn’t be a good idea for Jefferson County.
“We fought for years for local control, and I am not ready to give it back,” she said. “I don’t think state farm legislation should be applied here. I think this is a maneuver to change a judge’s decision. I am in favor of local control. I appreciate your efforts, however, and I know that often you have to deal with information that I do not have, so I rely on your wisdom to serve us well.
In response, Doyle recounted his 26 years of service as a legislator and agreed with Commissioner Tabb that local control is paramount to what the county commission does.
“I strongly advocated for local control,” he said. “A lot of officials say they’re for local control unless the local government makes a decision they don’t like. Jefferson County is one of three counties in the state to have county-wide zoning. We passed it around 1990. There are three other counties that are partially zoned counties. When a riding does that, it says we think we can make our own decisions here, and I think the legislature should respect that. “
Also on Thursday, the committee elected Caleb Hudson as its new chairman. The next regular meeting of the county committee is scheduled for Thursday, January 20 at 6 p.m.