Community leaders oppose Durbin dissolution
Durbin elected officials and the town's largest employer recently spoke out against dissolution of the municipality.
State law regulating municipal corporations decrees that a town will be dissolved if fewer than 20 persons voted in its last election, upon petition to the county court. The town held an election in June - in which all candidates were unopposed - which drew only 18 voters.
Kenneth "Buster" Varner employs 27 people at his construction, septic pumping, tractor sales, auction and restaurant businesses in Durbin. He's lived in the town his entire life and serves as fire chief.
Varner said dissolution would be a "step backwards" for Durbin.
"Why would anyone want to lose something?" he said. "Why would you want to lose a town that's incorporated? You won't have any federal grants. The septic that we have now would be, more than likely, taken over by the Public Service [District]."
Durbin residents would have less control of their sewer utility if it was taken over by the Public Service District (PSD), according to Varner.
"The Public Service can ask for an increase every year," he said. "The [PSD] water company has increased their water rates by 70-some percent in seven years. They lose more water than they charge for. Granted, they're replacing some lines and it's helping a lot of that, but do we want to be subject to that? I don't want to be subject to that. I'm one of the biggest customers buying water. I just don't want to see the town be unincorporated."
Proposed rate increases must be approved by the Public Service Commission.
Varner responded to arguments that communities, like Frost and Bartow, operate effectively without a town government.
"They all have septic systems and they don't have public water," he said. "They probably survive without being incorporated. But, if they had a sewer system down there that they had to pay for or had public water, there wouldn't be the same issues."
Varner said the majority of town residents want to keep the town and that some dissolution proponents are motivated by petty disputes.
The businessman said former councilmember Kenneth Lehman, who circulated a petition to dissolve the town, was upset because council told him to remove a fence.
"Now he's off town council and he's got an ax to grind because he put a fence on the town property or state property and knew it was wrong, but did it anyway," he said. "He said he didn't care what they said. But now, he's got an ax to grind and all these people have an ax to grind."
"What I'd really like to see is all the people work together for the good of Durbin, instead of all this negative stuff." he said.
The fire chief asked everyone in Durbin to consider what's best for the community.
"Do they really, truly care?" he asked. "They say they're doing it for the people, but do they truly care for the people in the community? Do they have the people's interest at heart or are they just doing it for a grudge? I believe it's all a grudge thing."
Varner said he didn't think the state law should apply to uncontested elections.
"Nobody felt there was any use to go vote because there was nothing contested," he said. "They're going to get in there, period, and that's the way I thought about it. I actually did vote at the last minute down there. That was my thoughts on it - why waste the time to go do it? I didn't know about this law, that if a certain amount of people didn't vote, you can un-incorporate a town, after certain procedures. I don't really think that's what this law is for - for things like this."
Varner urged residents to consider the consequences of dissolution.
"When you lose something, you have a really hard time getting it back," he said. "So, let's not lose it."
Durbin Mayor Donald Peck still lives in the house where he was born 57 years ago.
Peck echoed Varner's concerns that utility rates would increase following dissolution.
"The county's going to pick up the sewage," he said. "Once the PSD gets it, it would be 50, 60, $70 a month. People don't see this. We're here, as an incorporated town, trying to keep these bills down, but people want to fight the town all the time."
Durbin's base sewage rate, based on 2,000 gallons of water use, is currently $19.50 per month.
The mayor said talk of dissolution jeopardized the town's effort to secure loan and grant money for a stormwater project.
"With this publicity in the paper, that might hurt our chance to get that money," he said.
Peck said the town's two snowplows were important to residents during snowstorms.
"How are they going to get out to stores and stuff?" he asked. "The state plows our side streets but when they have a lot of snow, the main roads are their priority. Then, the side roads come. But the town does furnish some plowing to get people out to the stores or to the buses or wherever they need to go."
Peck said hard feelings developed over sewer bills in 2004, when Mayor Mike Vance insisted the town bill owners for uninhabited properties.
"In 1986 to 1987, when we put in our lagoon, everybody had to pay a bill," he said. "Whether you were in your home or not, you had to pay the bill.
"In 1991, Emma Grace Nottingham came into town hall, at that council. She inherited her mother's house with nobody in it. She didn't want to pay a bill on an uninhabited house.
"Mayor John Bosley, at the time, he said, 'no concessions.' One of the council persons at the time said, 'I make a motion that if nobody's in a home, they don't have to pay a bill.'
The measure passed, but violated terms of the bond issued to obtain sewer project funding, according to Peck.
"Well that went against our town bond with the lagoon," he said. "You can't do something with a bond to go against it."
Peck said Mike Vance was appointed mayor in 2004 and renewed billing for uninhabited houses to help balance the town's account.
"Mike brought it to the council and said, 'why don't we go back and pick these people up that should be paying,'" he said. "Then, that helped everybody out."
The mayor said hard feelings remain from Vance's decision, but that dissolution wouldn't lower anybody's rate, because the PSD also would be required to charge for uninhabited houses.
Peck responded to complaints about three members of the Vance family serving on town council.
"If you don't want people in there - vote them out," he said. "They say, 'three in the same family.' Somebody had to run. If you didn't want these people, three in a family in there, put your John Henry on the ballot and run."
Vance has lived in Durbin for 40 years, served as mayor for four years and was recently re-elected to council.
The councilmember reiterated Varner's and Peck's concerns regarding sewer rates and snow plowing and said dissolution would bring improvement projects to a halt.
"The town could never get grants for nothing," he said. "I'm working on two particular grants, right now. I'm working with the mayor on the sewer grant, which we got. I'm working on a sidewalk grant. I'm also trying to work on a grant for the library to help get the community library thing going.
"Being a corporation means a lot because you've got somebody to help do it and help you write the grants to get it. If you're unincorporated, you're going to have nothing but a dark town."
Vance agreed with Varner that the state law controlling dissolution should not apply to uncontested elections.
"I don't feel that law should come close to applying because we had an uncontested election," he said. "Nobody ran for write-in. Everybody had an opportunity to run. My wife signed her paper and paid her five dollars. Anybody in Durbin, who didn't have a felony, could have paid five dollars and got on the ballot."
Newly-elected councilmember John Osborne gave a different perspective on the dissolution debate and said some residents take town benefits - such as street lights - for granted.
"The way I see it, from someone who has moved into the area - I have not lived here my whole life - when I drive through the county, there are only three areas that are actually lit up at night," he said.
Osborne said a vocal minority hinders town business and discourages residents from participating in the town government.
"It's just funny to me that no matter who is on the council - it doesn't matter whether it's myself or Joe Blow - there is a contingent of people who come to town hall meetings," he said. "Most of them aren't even town citizens and all they do is rabble-rouse."
"There is a group that didn't want to pay their bills," he continued. "As a matter of fact, they originally came to me. That group tried to get me into office. They put a petition around to have me become mayor. Of course, that didn't work out. Eventually, I did get on the council and when I got in there, I found out that they were only giving half the story. They didn't tell me the whole story.
"When I got in there I found out the citizens had originally voted that all town residents had to pay for the sewer and kept the cost down for everybody."
Osborne urged Durbin residents to participate in their local government.
"The community needs to come together as a whole," he said. "I've always said, 'if you're not part of the solution, then you're part of the problem.' Stop being part of the problem and come down. If you've got ideas, please submit them."
Chapter 8, Section 35 of the State Code regulates dissolution of municipalities. The law can be found online at www.legis.state.wv.us/WVCODE.