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Putnam commissioner blocks closed meeting

WINFIELD, W.Va. -- Putnam Commissioner Gary Tillis blocked an attempt to exclude the public during a meeting Tuesday, an attempt he believed was intended to discuss a tax break that had been given to a Poca company.

Commissioner Steve Andes voted to enter executive session, which was listed on the agenda as a contract negotiation with Gary Walton, director of the Putnam Development Authority. However, Commissioner Joe Haynes wasn't at the meeting, making it a 1-1 vote and defeating the attempt to enter executive session.

After the meeting, Tillis said he believed the executive session was planned in order to discuss West Virginia Steel Corp.'s payment in lieu of taxes (PILOT) arrangement.

Decades ago, commissioners approved a PILOT agreement with the Poca business, allowing a 25-year tax break on real property. The county owned the land during that time.

When the deal ended in 2006, the land was given back to the company, which was supposed to begin paying taxes. However, the Putnam sheriff's tax office was mailing the company's tax invoices to an incorrect post office box in Winfield, and getting back the unopened mail.

Once the error was realized, West Virginia Steel was hit with a "three-year tax bill at once," County Attorney Jennifer Scragg Karr said in June.

But also that month, commissioners agreed to extend the company's tax break on real property for two years with the understanding West Virginia Steel would expand and add 40 more jobs.

Tillis has expressed his reluctance to give out PILOT incentives because schools stand to lose tax dollars and because it's unfair to other companies in the county.

PILOT incentives are often handed out to companies in exchange for their opening in a certain area or promising to bring more jobs to an existing facility.

Walton wouldn't say after the meeting the company's name or details about what the executive session might have accomplished.

"Any time you talk to a company, whether it's an existing one or one that's coming, the company prefers you go into executive session until they're ready to release something," Walton said. "They release it; I don't."

An employee with West Virginia Steel said company officials did not want to comment Tuesday.

Andes, who serves on the Development Authority board, said after the meeting that he didn't know what the executive session was intended for, only that it was with West Virginia Steel.

"The whole idea is to bring investments into the county, to get more jobs, which helps everybody," Andes said about PILOT programs.

Tillis, who isn't running for re-election, said offering tax incentives to some isn't fair to all companies and that Putnam County already has lower taxes than surrounding counties.

"Our schools are some of the best in the state, if not No. 1," he said, referring to why businesses should want to locate in Putnam. "I don't think we should just hand out these [PILOT deals]."

And handing out tax breaks for businesses shouldn't be discussed behind closed doors, he said.

"Since I've been here, I haven't voted for a PILOT project," Tillis said.

He explained that the only one he would have approved and was justified had been given to the Toyota plant in Buffalo. That's before he was elected commissioner.

"We got a $25 million bridge out of it," he said, referring to the bridge connecting U.S. 35 to Buffalo, which the state paid for.

In July, with a 2-1 vote, commissioners approved a PILOT deal for Ludowici LLC, an Australian company that purchased land in the Putnam Business Park.

Ludowici received a 20 percent tax deduction on real property for 20 years with the understanding that they'd bring at least 70 jobs.

On Tuesday, Walton reported the company would hire 100 workers and has room to expand.

In other business, the West Virginia Development Office has received the county's grant application to help secure funding to bring water to residents in Manila Ridge, according to Tillis.

Putnam's application was among 60 others. All the applications requested no less than $1 million apiece, he said.

"They did say ours was one of the better applications," said Tillis, who also noted that the county has money set aside to add to a grant, which might give an advantage.

Commissioners have been trying to find ways to fund the water extension project after West Virginia American Water pulled out last year.

Reach Kate White at kate.white@wvgazette.com or 304-348-1723.


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