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Rising costs challenge Kanawha, Carper says

CHARLESTON, W.Va. -- Finding ways to keep providing basic needs to Kanawha County residents as costs continue to escalate will be one of the biggest challenges facing the Kanawha County Commission in coming years, the commission's president said.

"Nobody wants an increase in taxes," said County Commission President Kent Carper, who is running for re-election in next month's general election.

Carper, a Democrat, is running for his third full term on the Kanawha County Commission. First appointed in 1996, he was then elected to an unexpired term before serving two full terms in the office.

Carper talked to Gazette editors on Wednesday about some of his accomplishments in office, and where he thought the county was headed in the future. His Republican challenger, Stephen D. Snead, did not attend Wednesday's candidate meeting and has not been aggressively campaigning.

"People deserve to receive basic, core public services and public safety support," said Carper. Yet, he said it costs about $70,000 in salary, benefits and equipment to put a sheriff's deputy on the road, and the price of government keeps rising.

"The cost of running everything is still going up 4, 5, 6 or 7 percent," he said.

In coming years, Carper said county government would have to find a way to embrace new technology and the changing job market to keep county residents working. During his 16 years in office, Carper has seen the county lose thousands of manufacturing, chemical and coal industry jobs.

But Carper sees an opportunity to grow in other areas to make up for at least some of the losses. Carper believes West Virginia and Kanawha County are on the verge of an economic boom from the vast Marcellus Shale gas reserves, and thinks the county is poised to take advantage of an expected explosion in the gas industry.

During his time in office, Carper has come to be known as a tenacious fund-raiser, often finding unconventional ways of figuring out how to pay for projects.

The Kanawha County Commission recently approved two water projects to bring water to about 50 families in the Mahan and Coalburg areas at a cost of almost $5 million. Most of the money for the water projects came from Abandoned Mine Lands grants for which federal officials said Kanawha County was ineligible.

Carper and other commissioners had county grant writers apply for the grants anyway, and the funding was granted. "We've done about seven of those now," Carper said.

Carper also is proud of securing $2 million in funding from former Sen. Robert C. Byrd, for a statewide interoperable radio system that allows emergency responders to talk to each other anywhere in the state.

Carper said one of his roles as a county commissioner has been to help facilitate projects that are good for the county as a whole. "The Kanawha County Commission can't go out and build a Toyota plant," he said. "But we can take part in things like that."

Carper said it was the County Commission that helped talk former Gov. Joe Manchin into keeping the old South Charleston stamping plant from being torn down.

"That building was going to be bulldozed," Carper said. "Either that, or it would have been the largest indoor flea market in the United States."

But, with the support and urging of the County Commission, facility owner Ray Park agreed to invest $20 million in renovations to the building and Manchin agreed to pitch in $15 million. Gestamp, a Spanish automotive stamping company, has leased the building and intends to open soon.

"That's going to be 700 jobs," Carper said.

Carper said help and support from the county was also important in keeping Yeager Airport open when some officials wanted to build a regional airport in Cabell County, in saving the National Guard base from closing when federal officials wanted to shut it down, and in development of the South Charleston tech park.

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

 


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