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Bills for Morgantown development, magistrate pay advance in legislative swap

CHARLESTON, W.Va. -- With legislative action Wednesday, the Morgantown area stands to get a new interstate exit, retail and office developments, and a new ballpark -- while a number of magistrates and their staffs stand to receive pay raises.

After three weeks in limbo, the House Judiciary Committee on Wednesday unanimously advanced legislation approving a sales tax increment financing district that will provide at least $96 million of commercial and business development near Morgantown, including a new exit off of Interstate 79 and a $16 million ballpark to be used by both West Virginia University and a New York-Penn League affiliate (SB125).

Nearly simultaneously, the Senate Judiciary Committee advanced a presumed dead bill to increase some magistrates' salaries to $57,500, and provide raises to staff of the lower-paid magistrates (HB2434). That bill passed the House Feb. 20, but had drawn a cool response from Senate leaders unenthused about any pay raises this session.

As amended in committee, the bill would raise salaries of magistrates and staff in six counties -- Lewis, McDowell, Wetzel, Wyoming, Barbour, and Roane -- to the upper pay tier. Magistrates and staff in the first four counties took pay cuts Jan. 1 because population losses dropped them to the lower tier, with salaries of $51,125 for magistrates.

Under the TIF bill, developers will use sales tax collections from the stores, hotels, restaurants and other businesses in the expanded University Towne Center to sell bonds to build a $25 million exit off Interstate 79 between Westover and Star City, provide $4 million for water and sewer lines, and build a $16.2 million ballpark for teams from WVU and the New York-Penn League affiliate.

Developer Jason Donahue said the facility would resemble PNC Park in Pittsburgh, offering a panoramic view of Morgantown and the WVU campus.

"We're designing it to be quite an attraction," he told the Judiciary Committee.

The bill goes to the House floor after advancing from the Finance Committee Wednesday afternoon with one amendment: "Correcting" the spelling of the name of the development in the bill from "Center" to "Centre."

House Judiciary Chairman Tim Miley, D-Harrison, said Wednesday he never opposed the TIF district legislation, even though Bridgeport Mayor Jim Christie had publicly opposed it.

However, Miley was unabashed in saying he used it for leverage to get the magistrate pay raise bill moving in the Senate.

"There's no question there are many members of the House of Delegates and many members who are in leadership who want the magistrate bill and are willing to sacrifice the TIF bill to get the magistrate bill," he said.

While the Morgantown-area development may be of great benefit to north-central West Virginia, Miley noted, "People in other parts around the state don't receive any benefit from the Monongalia County TIF."

Said Miley, "The Legislature is no different than life -- you help each other get what you can, so long as that doesn't compromise your principles and values." Reach Phil Kabler at philk@wvgazette.com or 304-348-1220.


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