Gearheart: Special session short but productive

Published: Aug. 9, 2023 at 5:33 PM EDT
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BLUEFIELD, W.Va. (WVVA) - A special legislative session that started Sunday and ended Tuesday evening crammed 45 bills to consider in a short period of time, but Del. Marty Gearheart, R-Mercer County, said some important items were accomplished, including money for volunteer fire departments and corrections.

Mercer County volunteer fire departments should fare well, he said, with $12 million total for the state and Mercer County will have a share of three different pots.

“There is $6 million distributed equally by population to each firehouse,” he said. “There is another $3 million distributed in much the same way but it is distributed to county commissions as opposed to firehouses and they will distribute based on need.”

Another $3 million will go to county commissions based on the fire fees, and those funds will also be distributed.

Gearheart said the money will most likely be used for equipment and training as well as operating expenses like fuel costs.

Gearheart, who is also Majority Whip in the House, said he is concerned about lawsuits related to corrections, but the special session addressed some of those issues.

“There were a variety of things done for corrections,” he said, including a pay increase for officers and bonuses for corrections employees who are not officers but work inside prisons.

“There was $25 committed immediately for correctional officers’ salaries,” he said. “There was another $6 million committed to bonuses for non-uniform individuals and a commitment to work on their pay package after the first of the year.”

Gearheart said part of last year’s budget was committed to maintenance and “it should be kicking in now” to help upgrade facilities.

“Those lawsuits (pertaining to conditions and treatment of inmates) are certainly concerning but on the legislative side we don’t micromanage the prisons,” he said. “We allocate the monies and we make the laws that surround their circumstances … but as a legislator I have no ability to manage the operation of the facilities.”

Gearheart said “there is no doubt” more money will be allocated to prisons in the 2024 legislative session that starts in January 2024.

One bill that also passed the House and Senate and sent to Gov. Jim Justice for his signature will give a big boost to the development of the Ridges Sports Complex and Expo Center at I-77 Exit 9 in Princeton.

House Bill 120 authorizes the creation of an Economic Opportunity Development District within Mercer County and to authorize Mercer County to levy a special district excise tax for the benefit of that District.

The district is almost 400 acres of land where the Ridges will be located, and that will include numerous ballfields, a convention center and other amenities to draw visitors to the area for sports tournaments, recreation and meetings.

“That is big for our area,” he said of the legislation. “It is based on the principle that gains in tax revenue will be utilized to finance bonds to pay for projects.”

Since no taxes are collected on that property now, when it is developed a “tremendous amount” of sales tax will be collected there and go toward paying off the bonds, giving investors a return on their money.

“You are able to borrow by securing it against future sales tax,” Gearheart said.

Gearheart said he was disappointed so many bills were crammed into such a short period of time, but that may have happened because the chambers will be closed the rest of the year for renovations, making any other special session unlikely.

The 2024 legislative session begins on Jan. 10.