Business leaders rally against sales tax
Elkins Council passes ordinance on second of three readings
ELKINS — More than 70 people packed the Elkins City Council chambers Thursday evening, as downtown business owners urged city officials to table the proposed 1 percent sales tax ordinance until a decision about how the revenue would be spent is made.
One council member again made a motion to table the ordinance, but in the end council voted 7-3 to approve the new tax on the second of three required readings Thursday.
Mark Doak, who owns several buildings in downtown, was the first to speak during the meeting’s public comment section. He noted that there are many positive things happening in Elkins right now, but said a consensus of property owners and business owners opposed the sales tax.
Doak said about 70 percent of the city’s current operating income comes from city businesses, while the other 30 percent comes from the city’s residents.
“What that means is that the city and the business community have to work hand in hand,” he said. “The more economic development within the city, that means the more taxes and the more fees are paid to the city of Elkins.”
Doak said the town’s B&O tax places Elkins businesses “at a disadvantage” to businesses operating outside city limits. He noted “the 1 percent sales tax only increases that disadvantage.”
“How are we going to spend that sales tax to enhance the business climate of Elkins?” he asked, noting that some city officials have said they don’t know exactly how much revenue will come in, so there’s no way to determine how it will be spent.
“This is really an excuse, not a reason,” he said. “All businesses do business planning. They plan how to spend money.
“The city needs to say, ‘The first $100,000 will go toward the operations of the city. The second $100,000 toward wage increases. The next $100,000 to replace vehicles. And so on and so on, as to how this money will be spent.”
Jay Wallace of Allegheny Insurance, a downtown property owner, asked council to think about “does business exist to serve city government, or does city government exist to serve business?”
“The city must establish spending priorities,” Wallace said, and asked council to table the ordinance.
Downtown business owner Martha Metheny also spoke, saying the new tax could have a negative effect on downtown businesses, leading to “vacant buildings, empty storefronts, streets that are only inviting to undesirable people and undesirable activities.”
Two speakers praised the turnout for Thursday’s meeting.
“What a wonderful example of an exercise of our constitutional rights,” Rhett Dusenbury, representative for Congressman Alex Mooney, R-2nd District, said while looking around the packed room.
Kevin Howell, downtown business owner, noted, “The 1 percent sales tax has brought in something I’ve never seen in Elkins … I didn’t realize the Elkins business community was so close … so strong.”
After the public comment section ended, Councilman Carman Metheny of Third Ward asked to speak.
“I have 40 years with the city,” he said, noting that decades ago the city wasn’t always able to meet its payroll. “I never want to see those days again,” Metheny said, explaining his support for the 1 percent sales tax.
“I’d like to see each and every one of you spend one evening on council to see how hard it is,” Metheny said. “It’s not easy.”
When the sales tax ordinance came up for its second reading, Councilman Robert Chenoweth of First Ward made a motion to table it, as he had at the Nov. 2 meeting.
“I think the prudent thing to do would be to table the ordinance…,” he said. “Have some type of thought before we pass this ordinance.”
Before the vote was taken on Chenoweth’s motion, Mayor Van Broughton said, “And I will go on record. I don’t have a vote, but if council wants to table this, that’s fine with me.”
The motion to table failed by a vote of 3-7, with Chenoweth, Fifth Ward’s Linda Vest and Third Ward’s Christopher Lowther voting in favor, while voting against were Metheny, First Ward’s Bob Woolwine, Second Ward’s Charles Friddle and Gene Ochsendorf, Fourth Ward’s Marilynn Cuonzo and Marly Hazen, and Fifth Ward’s David Parker.
Council then voted on the second reading of the sales tax, which passed 7-3, with Chenoweth, Vest and Lowther casting votes against the ordinance.
After the vote was taken, nearly the entire audience for the meeting stood up and walked out of council chambers, with the resulting hubbub prompting Broughton to stop his reading of the next item on the agenda until the dozens of people had exited.
The third and final reading of the ordinance will be at the next council meeting at 7 p.m. Dec. 7.