By Mannix Porterfield
A Raleigh County legislator passed up an opportunity to help create new jobs in his district by adding a new magistrate in a bill that got nowhere in a legislative interims committee.
Delegate John O’Neal, R-Raleigh, voted with the majority in killing the proposal before Judiciary Subcommittee A in this week’s January interims.
Like his colleagues in the majority, O’Neal was leery of the uncertain criteria used to justify new magistrates, not only in Monongalia, the target of the original bill, but also in Berkeley, Kanawha, Raleigh and Wood.
As explained to committee members by an attorney, Monongalia ranked fifth in caseload from 2009 to 2011, averaging 3,156 per judge.
The measure was successfully amended by Delegate John Ellem, R-Wood, to add the other four counties, but when the final showdown came, the bill collapsed.
Magistrates are paid $80,000, but the expenses don’t end there, and the cost was a major problem for O’Neal and the others.
O’Neal said he was bothered by the fact that the backers couldn’t provide a fiscal note to say just what the overall cost would be, figuring in the staff and all the benefits associated with one magistrate.
“But the judiciary chairman of the Senate (Corey Palumbo) made an estimate that it was going to cost in the neighborhood of $750,000 to $1 million of additional cost to the state, without any clear criteria as to what exists for establishing another magistrate,” the Republican lawmaker said.
“And the argument he made was, are we going to just year after year take the top five counties in population and add a magistrate to them, or is there some criteria for adding a magistrate?”
One estimate given the panel is that each new magistrate, along with an assistant, could run up an annual price tag of $150,000.
O’Neal said he joined with the majority on the panel to kill the legislation.
Siding with him were Palumbo, D-Kanawha, and Sens. Evan Jenkins, D-Cabell, Art Kirkendall, D-Logan, and Greg Tucker, D-Nicholas.
Ellem was joined in voting for the bill by Sen. Bob Beach, D-Monongalia, and Delegates Mike Manypenny, D-Taylor, and Clif Moore, D-McDowell.
And like the others, the two-term delegate wondered how extra magistrates can be justified, given West Virginia’s lack of population growth over the past decade.
“We made the suggestion and all supported the idea of a reallocation of existing magistrates so that if there were counties that were experiencing a high caseload, compared to other counties, and some counties that had significantly less caseload, then let’s reallocate the magistrates and therefore bring one of those into Raleigh and the other top five counties,” O’Neal said.