Commission hears funding requests and allegations
In a six-hour-long, marathon meeting last Tuesday, Pocahontas County commissioners addressed a full agenda, and were able to successfully fund all requests from local groups for assistance through the county hotel/motel tax. There were no decreases in funding, and commissioners were able to fund requests from two new organizations.
B.J. Gudmundsson, preservation officer for Preserving Pocahontas, and board member Bob Sheets were first to address commissioners.
“What I brought you today was an official request for our funding,” said Gudmundsson. “Since what we need every year is to the tune of approximately $30,000 — with us making up the rest in special projects — it seemed like a decent proposal to ask to divide our funding in half and ask for part of it from the county commission budget.”
Gudmundsson requested $15,000 a year for the next three years.
“I realize budget discussions happen later,” she said. “But I've also asked for an allotment from the hotel/motel tax of 3% — which restores us to the level that we had when we were under the library, and gets us back at a level of operation that we started at.”
Sheets talked about the importance of the organization. He said he receives phone calls, letters and e-mails all the time from people inquiring about the Fort Warwick archaeological site.
“The second example I would give would be the most recent publication of a very informative text about the Civil War here by Mr. Joe Geiger and the West Virginia Archives called Holding the Line. He did that by going to South Carolina, Georgia, Indiana, Michigan and reading the personal diaries of these soldiers who served here over 150 years ago,” said Sheets. “Somebody had to preserve those original sources, or he would not have been able to collate that particular piece of scholarship and put it together, and create a real living and breathing document that tells what happened here 150 years ago.”
Sheets suggested that everyone, especially in Pocahontas County, take the time to read the novel, because it gives the reader a whole new understanding about how important this area was during the Civil War.
Commission president Dolan Irvine inquired whether Preserving Pocahontas could apply for other grants.
“There are some we can pursue for special projects,” explained Gudmundsson. “Like some of the things we're doing with the Pearl Buck project, which is doing their entire archives. There has not been any money available anywhere for normal everyday operations.”
Gudmundsson said she has been talking with Shepherd University's Appalachian Studies program about the possibility of getting an intern to come to the area to work on various projects in the county.
“They'll be able to work not only with us, but also the Historical Society and Pearl Buck and others,” said Gudmundsson.
Gudmunsson added that Preserving Pocahontas has supported other organizations in the county.
“We actually are providing support for a lot of these people who are getting hotel/motel tax,” she said. “The Landmarks Commission — getting buildings on the register doesn't work without having historical records to back them up. We're the ones that preserve those and find those hard-to-find documents. We've been supporting all of the festivals from Drama, Fairs and Festivals, doing photo exhibits and all these things to draw in tourists and visitors to their events. So we're doing a lot to support all of these other groups.”
“I don't think any of us would disagree that it's not a good project — it's needed,” said Irvine. “My opinion, it's just a matter of coming up with the money. That's the tough part.”
Irvine advised commission that hotel/motel tax dollars had been on a decline for the past couple of years.
Doug MacKenzie, of Geoweb LLC., provided the latest information on the 911 mapping project in the county.
MacKenzie said the next step in the project would be to maintain the addresses in a central database.
“Now it's just going to be maintaining the addresses,” said MacKenzie. “There will be a few changes, but it's just maintenance.”
“Doug needs to train myself and a couple of our 911 staff to handle that type of thing, as well as be on call to help us with that as we learn the software,” added Emergency management and 911 director Shawn Dunbrack.
Dunbrack commended MacKenzie for his work on the project.
Commissioner Jamie Walker said he had reservations about a $12,000 invoice from Geoweb, LLC for the upcoming year.
“On this $12,000 contract, is that going to cover any possible situation? Or are there going to be additions put on this like we've run into in the past?” asked Walker.
“It covers maintenance on every single thing I've done for the county,” MacKenzie said. “Unless the county comes up with something I've never done before, and I can't imagine what that is, but it covers everything.
Prosecutor talks budgetary concerns
Prosecuting attorney Eugene Simmons talked with commissioners about budgetary concerns in his office.
Simmons claimed his predecessor, Donna Price, overspent her share of the current year's budget.
Jeff Price, of Marlinton, spouse of former prosecuting attorney Donna Price-Meadows, interrupted Simmons and requested that the discussion be held in an executive session. A heated exchange followed.
“If he wants to talk, he can talk when I'm finished,” said Simmons.
Price said the former prosecuting attorney was never notified of the agenda item.
“I'm just asking that you go into executive session or maybe proper notice should be provided,” Price said. “In the letter you provided on January 10, you said there was an issue. You didn't outline what they were. You didn't ask to meet with the president [of the commission] with issues that you had and she had.”
Price passed out copies of a November e-mail in which the former prosecutor had invited Simmons to her office to review everything and ease the transition.
“You did not take advantage of that,” Price said. “My concern is, this is no way to do business. We have people representing the public here. You're an elected official, a constitutional officer and you don't even have the common courtesy to notify Donna and ask her to come in and go over issues.”
Simmons stated that he had written a letter to the former prosecutor advising that he would be at the commission meeting.
Commissioners cut off the debate by entering into a questionable executive session, a move challenged by Allegheny Mountain Radio's Geoff Hamill.
“I'm going to go over a few exceptions in which we can go into executive session,” said Fleming. “Matters rising from employment, retirement, promotion. To me, that's personnel. If Donna had made a request that this be made public, but there was no such request.”
“I don't think it would be appropriate to go into executive session and talk about somebody that's not even here,” said Walker.
“Let's do it this way, why don't we appoint a special investigator? I've talked to the state police and they're willing to investigate it. I have no problem with that. They can investigate it and come back to you with a report,” said Simmons.
After the brief executive session, commissioners voted to approve the hiring of three new staff members for the prosecuting attorney's office.
Before the vote was approved, Cheryl McCullough, of Arbovale, challenged the hiring of assistant prosecutor Robert Martin because of pending legal charges. She suggested that those charges be taken care of before he is allowed to take office.
McCullough said the charges were for public intoxication and obstruction of an officer in Morgantown and offered to provide copies of the charges to Simmons and commissioners.
Fleming asked McCullough whether they were current charges.
McCullough said the trial was set for February, and reminded commissioners the charges were for obstructing a police officer from doing their duty.
Fleming said the situation did give him cause for concern on the hiring, and commissioners voted to only approve the hiring of the other two individuals.
NRAO making progress to continue
Dr. Karen O'Neil, Green Bank site director for the National Radio Astronomy Observatory, updated commissioners on the possible divesture of the facility.
“The good news is we're making progress, but we do not have anything definitive at this point,” said O'Neil. “The National Science Foundation has also continued to work with us, and they are certainly extremely interested in seeing that site continue.”
“They do need to divest it from their budget portfolio — they need to take us out of their budget, but they want to find a way to make it continue forward and to help us find additional funding,” she said. “With that, they're willing to be fairly flexible in their approach in the divestment and fairly flexible in their timing of that, as well. It's going to be a slow process. We're extremely concerned not only about the loss of the facility for the science and engineering — as well as the education, but we're also very worried about the economic impact to this county if the facility were to close.”
O'Neil said support from senators Joe Manchin, John Rockefeller and representative Nick Rahall has been fantastic.
NRAO business manager Mike Holstine provided background on the situation.
“There was a committee formed by the National Science Foundation to look at all of their facilities,” he explained. “There were five facilities in the United States — Green Bank being one of those — that they recommended for divesture. The NSF has accepted that report. Right now the status is they have reserved the right to hold the decision on what their plan will be on divesture until December 31 of the year that we're in. They have also stated they will enact that decision on January 1, 2014.”
“Although they will not necessarily enact full divesture,” added O'Neil.
Funding requests for hotel/motel tax
Commissioners heard from representatives from local organizations for funding requests through the county hotel/motel tax.
Commissioners discussed ways to provide money for the Pocahontas County Artisan's Co-op. The county already provides funding to the Pocahontas County Arts Council.
“Why are we paying one arts group with hotel/motel tax funding? What's the reason we're not paying the other? Well, basically, it's because one asked and the other didn't — until now,” said Fleming. “I hope we can come up with some creative ways to support all of these groups, and I don't know if we can do it. We're looking at declining hotel/motel tax revenue.”
Irvine explained how the hotel/motel tax is distributed to local groups in the county. The Pocahontas County Convention and Vistor's Bureau receives 50% of the money, and the remaining 50% is divvied up among different organizations.
According to Irvine, Parks and Rec receives 16%, the Arts Council receives 3%, the Landmarks Commission 3%, Drama, Fairs and Festivals gets 11% and the library gets 17%.
Holstine, Roger Trussler and Lauren Bennett, representing Pocahontas County Parks and Recreation, asked commissioners whether their funding could be restored to its original 2009 level.
“Certainly you're aware of the construction project we have here, the Pocahontas County Community Wellness Center,” said Holstine. “Construction is under-roof, the inside is almost completed — structurally almost completed. They're going to start on drywall in a couple of weeks, if not sooner. In 2009, the county commission decreased the amount of hotel/motel tax to Parks and Rec from 18% to 16%. With the advent of the new community wellness center, the Parks and Recreation board is doing everything we do within the county with basically one employee. We would like to now request that, with the addition of the wellness center, that be increased back to its original 18%.”
Herby Barlow, Marlinton Volunteer Fire Department fire chief, stressed the importance of building emergency shelters in the county in the wake of the June derecho storm and Hurricane Sandy. Barlow said he wants to get away from using the Marlinton firehouse as a shelter because of safety concerns.
“We've got to build some emergency shelters,” Barlow said. “We've got to come up with something — whether it comes from the hotel/motel tax — to get some shelters going in this county. That's going to be enormous as far as I'm concerned when we get this crazy weather. As our commissioners you have to take the lead to get these shelters up and running.”
Dunbrack said his office, and volunteers, have been working with community organizations and churches that were interested in serving as emergency shelters.
“Again we're running into problems with those groups — 'we'd love to be a shelter, but we need money to buy generators so we can be a shelter.' Some of them took the initiative and got their own generators but some of them just don't have the funding.”
Dunbrack said he received a quote for a generator at Marlinton Middle School in excess of $100,000.
Commissioners pursued different options to meet all the funding requests presented to them. They agreed to hold off on any courthouse improvements in the next fiscal year to provide an additional $25,000 to be distributed from the bricks and mortar fund.
“If we didn't make a percentage change at all tonight, but we gave up our $30,000 bricks and mortar — that would theoretically account for an increase in all of your revenues,” Fleming told group representatives.
Commissioners voted to provide 50% of the hotel/motel tax to the Pocahontas County Convention Visitor's Bureau, $75,000 to Pocahontas Memorial Hospital, $75,000 to emergency medical services, and $50,000 to the county fireman's association. After leaving $5,000 in the bricks and mortar fund, Parks and Rec received an additional $15,000 — essentially restoring their funding to the 2009 level. Two new organizations were granted funding through the budgetary maneuver, the Pocahontas County Artisan's Co-op and Preserving Pocahontas both received $5,000.
“So we didn't decrease anybody, and we found money for two [new] groups,” Fleming stated.
Fleming said the commission received a response from the USDA from their letter in support of the Birthplace of Rivers National Monument, though the letter came just as the commission reversed its position on the monument.
Commissioners drafted a second response to the agency. A portion of the letter states:
“The Pocahontas County Commission, at its January 3, 2013, meeting voted unanimously to rescind support of the resolution approved in June 2012 concerning the Birthplace of Rivers National Monument. The commission understands the proposal covers 75,000 acres of the Monongahela National Forest. The commission is opposed to the Birthplace of Rivers National Monument until we receive more information.”