First coal miners in southern West Virginia lost their jobs, but that was only the beginning of the region’s economic woes.
Now county employees in some of the state’s hardest hit coalfield communities are about to be hit hard.
They’re reeling from layoffs or having to cope with salary reductions.
McDowell County Commissioners have already laid off eight employees and cut the wages of remaining staffers. That happened earlier this spring, and a copy of typed letter taped on a county office door reminds everyone just how bad things have become locally.
“As of July 1, all employees’ pay in the County Commission’s office will be decreased by 10 percent, but not to be cut below the hourly minimum wage of $8.75 per hour,” it reads.
County administrator Jennifer Wimmer, who has worked for local government since the early 1990s, said it’s never been easy when coal was down but things had a way of turning around.
Things are different now, and optimism is in short supply.
“It seems like there have always been ups and downs depending on how things were going with coal. But now it’s just hard to say if there will be an up again,” she said.
Wimmer and her counterparts aren’t alone when it comes to facing seemingly impossible economic odds.
Mingo County Commission members are continuing to meet this week in special sessions – including one this morning – to discuss potential employee layoffs, the impact to other elected officials’ budgets and loss of taxpayer services.
President John Mark Hubbard said it is not a matter of whether employees will be laid off, but how many.
“We can already see that it is going to have to occur, so the question will be how we go about doing that,” he said, adding that other elected county officials met with commissioners Monday and are now deciding how to make needed cuts in their own offices.
“I can tell you that since Monday we’ve notified four or five county commission employees. And they are either going to be losing their jobs, or they are going to be offered part time employment with no benefits. Basically they would have just a 20-hour work week,” he said.
Why layoffs on the county level?
It’s the result of a perfect storm that includes a downturn in coal production, a related reduction in coal severance tax monies and falling property tax collections which are estimated to be $740,000 behind last August.
“I can’t think of another industry that has literally been attacked like this and put out of business. Now we have to live with the aftermath of those actions,” he said.
Since less than a half dozen mines are still operating locally, many unemployed miners and their families moved away. Remaining residents can’t afford to pay their taxes, and the financial situation continues to worsen.
“Now the county employees who are losing their jobs have virtually nothing to fall back on except for maybe some fast food jobs. Sadly none of those folks were making what I would consider large salaries, but now their medical benefits and retirement are also gone,” he said.
Just last week county officials dipped into their rainy day fund to pay bills, but that’s not a permanent solution.
Affected employees never did anything wrong and don’t deserve to be terminated, but there’s not much else to do, he said.
“It’s different in business to let someone go when they have not performed or have done the things that would cause them to lose employment,” he said.
“However this is the hardest thing I’ve ever had to do – to be part of a day when you are bringing people into an office who have been great employees but the economics simply won’t allow you to keep them. It’s gut wrenching, and any man or woman who can do that without feeling something probably is dead to the world to begin with.”
It is a deeper loss because Mingo County’s people are its greatest resource, far and above other natural resources, he said.
“Forget about the coal that’s been dug, the trees that have been harvested and the gas we extract. Our greatest asset is our people, and it’s a terrible feeling when you can’t help them.”
Deputy state auditor Ora Ash, who routinely reviews county budgets as part of his job, said the magnitude of this problem is unprecedented at the state level.
“It’s not really unprecedented that a county would have a problem, but for so many counties to be having these problems is different. In this case, they share declining property values and the fact that tax payments aren’t coming in the way they used to,” said Ash, who previously served on the Doddridge County Commission.
“And these counties have already cut their budgets because of the anticipated cuts and drops in property values. They did everything right, but when people don’t pay their taxes it causes even more of a problem. Then you have to add in unexpected coal company bankruptcies so it really is a big hit. Having to lay off workers may be necessary but it sure is tough.”