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Putnam commissioners disagree about closed session

By Kara Moore

WINFIELD -- An already light agenda for the Putnam County Commissions first meeting of the month got even lighter when a planned executive session didn't happen for lack of a majority vote.

The agenda described the executive session, which is a closed portion of the meeting the public is not allowed to attend, as being for "contract negotiations." Sessions like this occur routinely, and are a legal exception to open-meeting laws.

Commissioner Joe Haynes was absent for Tuesday's meeting, and although Commissioner Steve Andes moved to go into executive session, Commission President Gary Tillis did not second the motion. Tillis often does not vote to go into executive session.

Putnam County Development Authority Director Gary Walton and several colleagues attended the meeting apparently in anticipation of the session. When Tillis opened the floor to hold the contract negotiations in public, Walton declined and the group left.

Andes suggested they return in two weeks when Haynes would be in attendance to try again.

Later, Tillis said he didn't know for sure who the parties to the negation were or what the topic would be, but he believed it was regarding a potential PILOT agreement with West Virginia Steel Corp.

PILOT stands for payment in lieu of taxes, and it's a way for counties to give businesses tax breaks to lure jobs to the county. Under these agreements, a public entity such as the county development authority holds the deed to the land.

The commission approved a PILOT agreement for West Virginia Steel Corp. in June that gave the company a two-year tax break after an error at the Putnam County tax office resulted in the company owing back taxes and $50,000 to $60,000 in fees.

That mistake stemmed from an earlier PILOT agreement that spanned 25 years ending in 2006 that exempted the company from paying real property taxes.

When the first PILOT agreement ended, the county started sending tax bills to a defunct address, so the company didn't receive or pay them. The new PILOT was to make up for the fees the company incurred as a result of owing back taxes.

When the two-year agreement was approved in June, an attorney for the company told the commission that the company was considering adding about 40 jobs in Putnam County and might ask for an additional PILOT agreement in the future.

Tillis said he didn't vote for the executive session because he doesn't support PILOT agreements in most cases and thinks they should be negotiated in public.

"They need to explain why they would go elsewhere in a public forum, not in an executive session," Tillis said.

Tillis, the only Democrat on the commission, is serving the sixth and final year of his term. He is not running for re-election.

"My concern is we've got a budget that we struggled with this past year," Tillis said.

Tillis also said Putnam County is a strong draw for businesses without the added incentive of tax breaks because of the already low tax rates and strong school system.

"There's a ton of existing businesses that have been here that helped build this county to what it is today," Tillis said. "The school system is the No. 1 driver for companies wanting to locate here. We've got one of the best in the state... and that was built by existing businesses."

Walton would not confirm the identity of the company or the topic of the planned negotiations or comment on the matter.

Earlier in the meeting, Walton told commissioners that another company with a recently approved PILOT agreement, Ludowici, is making progress on their site prep and construction. Walton said Ludowici would bring about 40 jobs to the county. The Putnam County Commission meets the second and fourth Tuesday of each month at the county courthouse in Winfield. All meetings are open to the public.


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