A constitutional amendment that would allow the Boy Scouts of America to operate for-profit ventures at the Summit Bechtel Reserve is looming on the Nov. 4 ballet, and voters are being asked to make changes to the state constitution for one entity while leaving amendment safeguards in the hands of legislators at a later date.
Many legislators and the Boy Scouts claim bringing in large events to use the Summit’s 80,000-capacity stadium, canopy tours, zip lines, mountain bike trails, river access and skateboarding rink will boost the local economy by bringing outsiders in to eat and sleep.
Tighe Bullock, Thurmond councilman and West Virginia University law student, asks questions about using the constitution to benefit one entity based on its monetary worth. The proposed amendment is carefully crafted to include only organizations focused on adventure, education and recreation for young people on property worth more than $100 million: The Summit Bechtel Reserve.
“Equality is at the core of of West Virginia’s Constitution. To require any monetary amount to qualify for constitutional protection, much less the proposed $100 million requirement, goes sharply against this notion,” he said.
West Virginia’s laws are ambiguous regarding non-profits and tax exemptions, and disparity already exists between how non-profits are treated county to county, he said. This amendment will solve how one non-profit is treated, but the disparity and ambiguity across the state for many others will still exist, he said.
According to Boy Scouts of America spokesman Gary Hartley, the Scouts need a constitutional amendment to set up for-profit ventures because it is prohibited in the 1944 tax guidance law based on the constitution. The law was then clarified in a 1945 statute after a court case required an interpretation of the law, allowing non-profits to make money if “the rents or royalties derived therefrom is used primarily and immediately for the purpose of the corporations or organizations,” according to state statute 11-3-9.
“This interpretation did not change the constitution. We met with the governor and with state authorities who recommended this (an amendment) was the route to take,” Hartley said.
Bullock said the state law allows for the Boy Scouts to operate the kind of ventures they want to through legislation as long as the funds go back into the facility.
Hartley said any profits generated will do just that.
Bullock said, “To be 100 percent sure, the Scouts do need an amendment. If the Legislature enacted a law, the Legislature could change their mind. If something went wrong or they didn’t like the outcome, they could change the law easily. If they change the constitution, they can’t go back in and fix it. It muddies the waters.”
If the constitutional amendment passes on Nov. 4, according to the amendment, the Legislature “would be required to enact laws that would protect local and regional businesses from unfair competition and unreasonable loss of revenue caused by the nonprofit organization use of the tax exemption.”
This addendum has been a relief for some and problematic for others.
New River Regional Development Authority member Bill Baker trusts any issues with the amendment can be corrected by the Legislature after it passes.
Likewise, lodging industry executive Mike Darby feels that limiting the scope of what the Scouts can offer at the Summit can go a long way toward making the amendment boost the local economy. “If they were to add lodging and other facilities to keep people from spending money in the community, that would be a problem,” he said.
Delegate John Pino, D-Fayette, has expressed concern that residents across all 55 counties will be voting on an amendment that would affect one small part of the state.
Most business owners and officials are just unsure what safeguards the Legislature might include.
If the amendment passes, Fayette County Assessor Harvey “Eddie” Young said he will be put in a position unlike any other assessor in the state, although it may not affect his job at all. “I don’t know what’s going to happen or what kind of rules the Legislature might pass if the amendment is adopted. I’m waiting to see right now like everybody else,” he said.
When asked how much tax revenue could be lost in the county and state, Hartley said none. Without the amendment, the Scouts would not operate additional ventures and would retain their current non-profit property tax exemption.
According to the West Virginia’s Legislature’s website, 17 constitutional amendments have passed since 1872.