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The town of Pratt could be dissolved

Kenny Kemp
Pratt Mayor Gary Fields has been stymied trying to solve the town's financial problems, many inherited from past administrations. Kanawha County officials are talking about dissolving the town.

CHARLESTON, W.Va. -- Kanawha County officials are thinking about dissolving the town of Pratt.

"That would be a last resort," said Kanawha County Commission President Kent Carper. "But the handwriting is on the wall. They do not have the finances to be able to run the town."

Last week, county officials discovered that the town of Pratt and the Pratt water plant owe the Internal Revenue Service almost $140,000.

Town officials have apparently not been submitting federal tax withholding for employees. The IRS filed tax liens against the town for $139,198 from 2008 through 2010, according to records found by County Attorney Marc Slotnick.

Kanawha County Commissioner Dave Hardy, whose parents live in Pratt, said he will ask that the town's finances be put on the agenda for discussion at the county commission's next meeting. Hardy said it was time to think about doing away with the town's government.

"It's either receivership or dissolution [of the town]," Hardy said. "I've lost confidence in the ability of the town to handle its affairs."

Pratt Mayor Gary Fields said a former town recorder apparently didn't fill out tax paperwork properly, leading to the IRS liens. He said town officials worked out a payment plan with the IRS, and have been paying about $1,000 a month on the debt.

Fields said town officials have paid the total IRS debt down to about $75,000.

Earlier this month, county officials found out that the Pratt water plant had not been submitting state retirement contributions to the state and owed the state retirement board about $36,000. The County Commission agreed to give the retirement board $5,000 if the board held off filing a lawsuit against Pratt officials until some kind of payment plan could be worked out.

Hardy wants to know exactly how deeply Pratt is immersed in red ink. "I'd like to hear from them how many more debts are out there," Hardy said. "We keep finding new debts."

"It's very unfair to the people who live there," echoed Carper. "The people who live there are fine people.

"If [Pratt] was a small business, they'd be in bankruptcy."

But Carper said it's not easy to dissolve an incorporated town.

Under state law, the County Commission could move to dissolve the town, population 602, if someone who lives there files a petition. County officials would then have to prove city officials were not meeting their basic responsibilities to the citizens.

"The standard to dissolve a town in West Virginia is high," he said.

Town officials could also put the proposal to a vote of the people and dissolve the town voluntarily. Talking to Fields, that doesn't seem likely. He thinks dissolving the town will solve nothing.

"We've actually come a long way in three years," he said. "Dissolving the town? What does that cure?"

"I hope it doesn't come down to that," said Angela Nugent, who has lived in Pratt almost all of her 31 years. "I hope they can work it out."

David Baughan, pastor of the Old Kanawha Baptist Church and a member of one of Pratt's oldest families, agrees that the town is in financial trouble. But he said Fields inherited most of the town's problems and has been working hard to correct them.

"This crowd has been trying to do the best they can to crawl out of that hole," Baughan said.

"I don't know what the purpose would be in dissolving the town charter," he said. "We've been incorporated since 1905."

Pratt's history stretches back into the late 1700s. During West Virginia's mine wars, labor leader Mother Jones was jailed in the town.

"We've been in this town since 1872," said Baughan, whose family includes several past mayors. "My family came here with the C&O railroad."

Fields concedes the town is in trouble. Some of the problems have occurred on his watch. Thoughts of resigning have even crossed his mind.

"But that would make me a quitter," he said.

"I'm not a quitter. Things can be worked out. But it's going to take time.

"And help."

Reach Rusty Marks at rustymarks@wvgazette.com or 304-348-1215.

 


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