MOUNDSVILLE - Marshall County real and personal property values grew by half a billion dollars in the past year, prompting Assessor Chris Kessler to call on school officials to give taxpayers a break.
Citing continuing growth in the natural gas, coal, chemical and power industries, Kessler said those values increased by $577.2 million for the 2013 tax year. Kessler said when public utility values from the State Tax Department and tax-exempt property are added to that amount, the assessed value of Marshall County is expected to be just under $3 billion - double what it was in 2007.
"This type of increase can only be described as extraordinary and is the result of new investment in the county," said Kessler, who will share his findings with the Marshall County Commission on Tuesday when members sit as a Board of Review and Equalization. "However, for all county residents to benefit and not only the gas producing companies and those receiving royalty and lease payments, it is past the time for the Marshall County Board of Education to significantly reduce the regular and operating levies that it will adopt for the 2013 Tax Year."
The increase for 2013 comes after a smaller, yet still significant, increase of $335 million in 2012, Kessler said. Following that increase, the Marshall County Commission lowered its levy rate by 13.4 percent from its 2011 level in an effort to save taxpayers money.
But the Marshall County Board of Education, which Kessler said receives 70 percent of all property tax proceeds, did not adopt such a decrease, keeping its rate at 98 percent of the total allowed.
When they voted to retain the same rate in April, school board members said the average taxpayer in Marshall County would see an increase of just $4.25 per year as a result.
They added that the district had many needs to be addressed and paid for using those general revenue funds.
Kessler on Friday, however, said it would be "unconscionable and completely misguided" for the board to decline to significantly reduce its levy rate for the upcoming year.
"The county commission demonstrated its willingness to reduce its levy last year and I am confident that it will do so again, given this unheard of value increase," he said. "But since 70 percent of every tax bill that is paid by residents goes to the school board, it is simply time for it to take the taxpaying public into consideration.
This value increase will generate over $10 million more for the school board if the levies aren't reduced.
"How much more money do you want before you believe lowering levy rates for all residents is the right thing to do?"
Kessler said the operating levy approved by voters in December stated the district needed $16.7 million annually to operate. With the increase in value, though, it will generate $22.7 million - a difference of $6 million he believes should be returned to taxpayers.
On Sunday, Marshall County Schools Superintendent Fred Renzella said in deciding to keep the same levy rates last year, the board had several issues to consider, including a projected 8.8-percent cut in revenue from the state that was expected to continue through the current school year.
"That accounted for a huge amount of money, and we can't just reshuffle a few things and cover those costs," he said.
Renzella, who just announced plans to retire at the end of the school year, also said the district employs 100 more people than the state aide formula calls for, with the cost of those employees covered by general revenue funds.
He said the rural nature of the county and the need for two high schools justifies those additional employees.
"We are 341 square miles, so we need to have an additional 20 or 30 buses that all need drivers, and some need special education aides," he said. "We are also staffing an additional high school, and all of those wage benefits fall to us. We're talking an additional $6 million for that, and those things were weighing on the board's mind when they were considering the levy rates last year."
Renzella said last year, the board and district were not in the position to lower rates due to the uncertainty of income from other sources.
However, he said he and the board of education have made a commitment to taxpayers to reconsider that rate this spring.
"We said if revenues continued to go up, we would seriously look at reducing those rates in some meaningful fashion, and I've personally said that several times," he said. "We also said even if we failed in passing the operating levy, the board would not ignore the plea to lower taxes and would try hard to lower those rates."
Kessler will report all of his findings to the Marshall County Commission at 9:30 a.m. Tuesday.
He said taxpayers who have concerns about their assessment should call his office at 304-845-1490 before taking their appeal to the commission.
"In most instances we can resolve the taxpayer's concern and simply make a recommendation to the board to adjust the value," he said. "In this manner, we can save the taxpayer's time and expense of making a trip to the courthouse.