Officials hear opinions on sales tax plan

ELKINS — During Thursday night’s Elkins City Council meeting, a discussion regarding a proposed 1 percent sales tax measure was greeted with mixed opinions by both councilpersons and residents.

While the potential tax increase was not voted on Thursday, the subject was a topic of discussion.

At the beginning of the meeting, two Elkins residents provided their thoughts on the increase — one in favor and one against.

Andy Mendelson, of High Street, expressed support for the new tax, saying he believed it would be more beneficial than the city’s currently used B&O tax.

“I wanted to speak in support of the sales tax, the 1 percent sales tax, especially if you are looking at getting rid of the B&O tax. If that generates enough income it’s fair, it’s made unbelievable amounts of money for other towns that have done that,” he said. “The B&O tax is a regressive tax. It hurts investment. The businesses should realize that if you get rid of the B&O tax, the 1 percent sales tax, everybody pays that, not just the businesses. All the visitors, the hotels, everyone using our roads is going to pay that tax.”

Martha Metheny, a Taylor Avenue resident and the owner of Henry G’s cafe with her husband Jerry Metheny, said she was against the measure, noting it was unclear where the proceeds of the potential tax hike would go.

“I would like to voice my displeasure in the 1 percent tax. I do not approve of it as it is standing right now because I have yet to see a plan as to where this money is going,” she said. “I have been involved in other parallel agencies where money is appropriated and then is just sort of disappeared, so I want to see a plan. Where it’s going, what it’s going to be used for or the accountability. It needs to go back to the citizens, not just a general fund, in my opinion. I want to see that plan before any kind of tax increase.”

Later in the meeting, the issue was discussed by council members, including Council Revenue Committee Chairman and Second Ward Councilman Charles Friddle, Council Revenue Committee member and First Ward Councilman Robert Chenoweth and Fourth Ward Councilwoman Marilynn Cuonzo.

Friddle began by giving a “thumbnail sketch” of where the Revenue Committee stands regarding the issue.

“It’s a fact that the B&O tax is a very regressive tax. It’s a very negative business tax. The hope for the sales tax is to eventually replace the B&O tax, particularly in retail with this sales tax,” Friddle said. “Once we look at the sales tax and see what kind of income we can create, we can slowly remove the B&O tax, particularly for retailers.”

Friddle said nearly $1 million could result from the sales tax being implemented in Elkins.

“Estimates show that we could, most probably, generate approximately $800,000 from the implementation of the sales tax,” he said.

Friddle added that he believes an open house meeting would be beneficial to allow members of the community to express their concerns.

“There is still some talk about having a county open house to open this up to the community,” Friddle added.

Elkins Mayor Van T. Broughton agreed, noting he thinks an open house meeting could address concerns, similar to the one shared by Metheny during public comment.

“I think that’s a great idea. This is what systems like this are for. Listening to concerns like those Mrs. Metheny shared. We can talk to people and get some of their ideas and concerns,” Broughton said.

Chenoweth said he disagreed with the idea of the sales tax proposal at this time, because several downtown business owners he has talked to also worry about where the funds will be allocated.

“In the past week, I have spoken to several business owners. I think the concerns the businesses have with the proposed sales tax is that they don’t know what the money is going to be spent on,” he said. “I know at the revenue meeting we talked about the funds generated being used for the city’s health insurance premiums for city employees and maintenance, things like that. Business owners are not getting behind that sales tax because they think municipal sales taxes should be directly benefiting downtown.”

He added he is “personally opposed” to the sales tax because he believes it is “contrary” to bringing business to the downtown area as opposed to the Beverly Five-lane.

Chenoweth added he had spoken with Third Ward Councilman Chris Lowther, who was unable to attend Thursday’s meeting. Chenoweth said Lowther “explicitly” instructed him to tell council that Lowther agreed with his concerns about the sales tax issue.

“I spoke with Councilman Lowther last night and he authorized me, he expressly told me, he said, ‘Express your opinions and tell the council that’s what I feel as well,'” Chenoweth said.

Cuonzo expressed her support for the sales tax initiative, saying the city of Elkins has recently “done a lot with little money” and added she believes that more could be done with increased revenue.

“The reasons why I feel this tax is very important is because we have a city that doesn’t have the ability to generate cash as counties do. … Therefore we want to look at taking care of downtown, which is one of the things we tried to do this summer,” she said. “I think if most people can take a look at downtown they can see that we did a lot with just a little bit of money. We can do more with more money including planting trees, bringing downtown flowers and cleaning up sidewalks.”

Cuonzo said she also believes that city employees in Elkins are some of the “most underpaid in the state” and the proposed tax could assist in raising wages.

Both Friddle and Elkins City Clerk Jessica Sutton noted near the end of the meeting that the sales tax would be applied to goods already taxed with a 6 percent sales tax, and that are sold to consumers, including tourists and visitors to the city, and not to business owners.

Sutton also said that 42 other municipalities in the state have already adopted the sales tax, with 40 of those setting the tax at 1 percent and the other two at .5 percent.