There is a planning and demographic crisis that is smashing the greater Morgantown area, at the same time that the state is being swept up in an intensification of the economic crisis.
Compared to the state economic crisis, which is mostly hitting southern West Virginia, the crisis pounding Monongalia County and Morgantown is unprecedented, and it’s as complex, newer, and less well known and less understood than the state crisis. This new and local crisis is being driven by a recent unprecedented population surge in Monongalia County, virtually all of it in the greater Morgantown area.
In the past 15 years (2000-2014), Monongalia County – in fact, the greater Morgantown area – grew by more than 22,000 people, which is more than it grew in the previous 50 years (1950-2000). During those previous 50 years the county grew by less than 21,000 people. Since 2000, the county has grown by more than that 22,000 people, and most of this massive population growth has occurred in the past 10 years, and virtually all of this unprecedented population growth has occurred in the greater Morgantown area.
And yet, amazingly, in the past 6 years, since 2008, throughout the peak of the population boom, the budgets of both the City and the County have essentially flat-lined, despite the area being in the throes of an unprecedented population explosion.
Furthermore, WVU College of Business and Economics predicts that this population boom will continue at nearly the same rate, while merely cheering it. Additionally, nearby Preston County has been growing its population nearly as fast as Monongalia County, adding further pressure on the Morgantown area. (Also, WVU student body enrollment essentially doubled to 29,000 between 1970 and 2014.) Morgantown’s population finally climbed about 5 percent between 2010 and 2014 to 31,073 people, while the county population continued to climb at a higher rate (to a total by 2014, as noted, of 103,463). Because Morgantown’s annexation efforts remain anemic, almost non-existent, the city is starved for funds and the chaotic, congested, degraded results in the city and adjacent county areas are plain to see, though there is much unnecessary invisible suffering too.
As if due to the recent “county” population surge, the City and County budgets both seemed to respond dramatically at first. The County budget rose from a mere $15 million in 2002-2003 to $32 million in 2008-2009, then spiked higher but the County Commissioners forced it back to the 2008 level, even as the population continued to surge. Similarly the City budget rose from a mere $16 million in 2002-2003 to $24 million in 2008-2009 but has oscillated near there ever since (also with an exception of a one year spike) even though the area population continues to balloon and the city population itself has increased an unusual 5 percent within the past 4 years.
So there is a crisis of chaos, congestion, ecological destruction, pitiful social services, and general degradation – a result of inadequate old planning mixing with new demographics. And it is simultaneously hitting the city and the county school system and the county itself. The county schools are exploding in enrollment at the elementary level. The ripple effect into the future should require a third Morgantown area high school, a fifth or sixth middle school, and several new elementary schools, yet there are no known public plans for this, and the plans to meet current needs range from shabby patchwork to abominable.
Monogalia County Schools are being swamped. During these past 14 years of 27 percent county population growth, the Monongalia County school district has added zero high schools, zero middle schools, and has halved the number of elementary schools from 20 to 10 between 1998 and 2014, including slashing from 15 to 10 elementary schools between 2005 and 2013. (Such consolidation has occurred not only in Monongalia County but statewide under the force of the West Virginia School Building Authority, since its founding in 1998.) However the consolidation has been exaggerated to grotesque proportions in Monongalia County. The result has been an explosion of young children crammed into overcrowded and too-big schools on too-small campuses. Terrible class sizes of 27 or 28 young children are not uncommon. Mon Schools has the state’s 2nd worst (highest) student to teacher ratio. Last month’s School Board vote to add up to 300 students to Brookhaven Elementary‘s tiny, cramped campus is an abomination.
Irresponsibly (and ideologically), during the most recent years of this unprecedented growth, the County cut its budget from a high of $37,545,605 in 2010-2011 to 32,568,846 in 2014-2015, thereby reducing the budget to the 2008-2009 level of 6 years ago. That’s a cut of 13 percent at the exact same time that the county population has been surging. As a result, County funded services have suffered.
The City is also unable to meet its many needs with a budget that has also nearly flat-lined since 2008-2009, with an exception like the county of one brief spike. The City budget has essentially oscillated between $24 and $26 million from 2008-2009 to the present. (In one year it dipped below this baseline to $23 million, while this past year it spiked to $29 million, and next year is projected to return to $25.5 million.)
Even though almost all of the county population growth borders and pressures Morgantown, the city has not expanded to collect the vast amounts of new B&O and property taxes that would allow for a world of good things to be implemented, ranging from the ecology, to infrastructure, to social services, and beyond. These taxes overwhelmingly account for how the city funds itself, especially B&O taxes. There is no reason for Morgantown to be cash-strapped, or infrastructure poor and service poor. It should be flush with cash and exceptionally well maintained, and improved, and serviced. It’s not, and the pressures are intensifying further into crisis due to the exploding demographics – a critical absence in virtually all public discussion.
City finances are an abomination. City and county and school district planning is an abomination. There needs to be a push for massive city annexation to vastly improve city finances. There needs to be a push for county-wide re-organization and expansion of school infrastructure, teacher hirings, and reduction of class size. There needs to be a push for massively improved county planning (including zoning) and services. And, as mentioned, this is all set against the backdrop of the intensifying state financial crisis and West Virginia’s ongoing failure to establish a state bank.
What’s good is that business is booming, job growth is up, and unemployment is [supposedly] down in the Morgantown Metropolitan Statistical Area. So there is zero reason for city and county budgets to be flat-lining and zero reason for the area to be as chaotic, congested, and corroded socially and physically as it is. Quite the opposite. But it would take a concerted and organized effort to turn it all around. Something worth running for, anyway.
Amazingly, Morgantown’s 2010 population was about 30,000 (actually 29,660), a zero percent increase from 1970. (229 people were added between 1970 and 2010.) All the while, the county grew, on the city’s borders mainly, by 50 percent in 2010, leaping to 62 percent by 2014. In the 10 years between 2000 and 2010, the county added 15,000 people. In the 4 years between 2010 and 2014 the county added 7,000 people. And most of those 22,000 new residents arrived within the past 10 years. Again, more than in the previous 50 years.
Star City: 2,000. Westover 4,000. Census designated areas in county: Cheat Lake 8,000; Brookhaven 5,000+