Gift to the taxpayers?
On July 1, 2016, the Hancock County Commission assumed responsibility for operating the county animal shelter. The commissioners refused to negotiate a new contract with a nonprofit which had been operating the animal shelter for over 20 years. The nonprofit had also raised 90 percent of the approximate half-million dollars for construction and improvements to the current facility.
When the commissioners assumed management of the shelter, there was an approximate $365,000 balance in the Animal Shelter Excess Levy account. Because the previous levies had identified the nonprofit as the shelter operator, who had legal rights to the accrued levy money became an issue. However, it only took the commissioners four days to have a letter written to the W.Va. Attorney General’s Office asking for a legal opinion regarding the Commission’s right to this money.
Over the next eight months, the Commission’s attorney wrote at least 14 communications to the Attorney General’s Office trying to convince them to issue a favorable opinion for their access to the levy funds. It is important to note that the Commission stated the levy fund balance at being approximately $300,000. On March 31, 2017, the W.Va. Attorney General, Patrick Morrissey, issued a legal opinion that neither the Commission nor the nonprofit had legal right to accrued excess levy funds. He stated legal cases on which his opinion was based and recommended the levy funds be returned to the “taxpayers of Hancock County.”
In August, I had the opportunity to briefly discuss the legal opinion with Mr. Morrissey. The $365,000 figure mentioned above was from a county report indicating the excess levy account balance the day the contract between the nonprofit and the Commission expired. Apparently, approximately $65,000 of bills had not been received by the date of the Commission takeover. The Attorney General’s opinion indicated neither party had access to the excess levy funds. Therefore, I asked Mr. Morrissey if the Commission could legally pay these expenses from the excess levy account or should they have paid these expenses from the county’s general account. Mr. Morrissey said he had not been asked that question. Therefore, how much is owed the taxpayers appears to still be in question.
It has now been over seven months since the Attorney General’s opinion and the commissioners have not publicly stated their intent to return the money to taxpayers. It is obvious the Commission created a legal mess when they failed to negotiate a new contract with the nonprofit.
Returning the money would be a nice Christmas gift to the taxpayers of Hancock County.