Commission reconsiders Sheriff's Auxiliary role
What was expected to be a minor contract revision turned into a re-examination of the role and duties of the Pocahontas County Sheriff's Auxiliary during Thursday's meeting of the Pocahontas County Commission.
On behalf of Sheriff David Jonese, Major Dave Walton came before the commission to ask that the wording "and any other duties directed by the Sheriff" be added to the standard contract that is signed by members of the auxiliary.
The duties currently listed in the contract include inmate transport, mental hygiene patient transport, mental hygiene patient security, courthouse security and transport of juveniles.
The change comes in the aftermath of the derecho windstorm that hit the county on June 29, when deputies and auxiliary members alike were having to deal with circumstances that ranged well beyond routine law enforcement duties. The change would also allow auxiliary members to be assigned to road blocks and traffic direction and to fill in for the department secretary during vacations, said Walton.
County commissioner Martin Saffer, who served as Mental Hygiene Commissioner for more than a decade, said the existing contract worried him.
"I'm concerned for the safety of hospital personnel and the safety of hospital patients if somebody of less authority than an actual deputy sheriff or the sheriff himself is handling that matter," Saffer said.
"These are people who need every bit of attention and concern and whose behavior could be erratic and pose a danger to themselves or other people."
Mental hygiene patient security and transport was already in the previously approved contract, noted Walton.
Commissioner Jamie Walker also asked about liability concerning traffic direction if an auxiliary member caused an accident. Walton explained that only a uniformed officer would be assigned to direct traffic at a four-way intersection. In most cases, auxiliary members would only be redirecting traffic where a road closure is necessary during a festival parade or emergency road closure and not at a busy intersection.
The contract also states that auxiliary members will not hold the county commission or Sheriff's Department responsible for injuries or accidents, Walton noted.
While auxiliary members are treated as contracted services for tax purposes, their responsibilities and supervision mirrors that of a county employee in many respects, Saffer observed.
To get further clarification, the commissioners spoke by phone with Steve Rawlings, of the West Virginia County Risk Pool.
"I'm very nervous about walking a line that is supposedly seeing these people as two things at the same time," Saffer told Rawlings. "We need some real clarification."
Rawlings said the position did pose some unique liability questions. Auxiliary members would appear to not be covered under Workers Compensation, Rawlings said, but they would be covered for liability when driving county vehicles under the direction of a county official.
To cover auxiliary member liability, but not Workers Compensation, meant "having a foot in two worlds" said Rawlings.
For further clarification, Rawlings said he would have to ask the Risk Pool's legals counsel to document and review the situation.
In the meantime, the county commission said it would take no action on the amendment and allow the current contract language to remain in force until it revisits the matter.
Discussion deferred on resort area sewage project
While Linwood-area resident Rusell Holt was on the agenda for "Discussion and/or Action-Snowshoe/Slatyfork Area Sewer Project," county commission President David Fleming preemptively cut off any further discussion on the project Thursday morning.
"The Public Service Commission is still to weigh in on the results of the status conference that was held a few weeks ago," said Fleming. "At present, all the interested parties are trying to get together for a meeting to try to hash out the differences and work out a compromise solution that will help everyone involved."
Fleming said the county commission declined to be a participant in the upcoming meeting. Instead, Fleming said the commission's position is that it supported the work that the Pocahontas County Public Service District was doing.
"Since we're still waiting for the Public Service Commission to weigh in on the results of the status conference, I feel it would be out-of-turn at this point for the county commission to further entertain discussion about this issue. This truly is in the hands of the Public Service Commission at this point. There can be nothing gained here today—or decisions made here today—by the county commission that could result in anything to override the Public Service Commission.
Fleming said the county commission would not discuss or take action on the agenda item.
"I don't feel it's proper for the county commission to entertain this item at this time."
"I came to ask questions," said Holt. "I can't even ask questions here?"
"At this time, I think it's time to let the Public Service Commission finish the process," Fleming responded. "It's premature to come to the county commission at this point, without that process having been completed."
"I have questions for the county commission," continued Holt.
After a testy exchange, Fleming asked Pocahontas Sheriff's Deputy Dave Walton to escort Holt from the commission meeting room.
"This is nothing but a dictatorship," Holt said as he left the room.
Thursday's meeting was the first quarterly meeting of the fiscal year designated for considering funding requests from civic groups and county organizations. The year's current budget for such requests is $200,000. Fleming noted that this was the largest the fund has been, due mostly to federal Payments In Lieu of Taxes totaling $766,000 and a carry-over from the previous fiscal year of more than $200,000. Without the PILT payment, Fleming noted that Pocahontas County would have had a deficit of $544,000 and be unable to fund requests from community groups.
Fleming said uncertainty remained over whether or not Congress would renew PILT in the future. If not, county departments would see "massive cuts" and the loss of 12-14 courthouse office employees.
Prior to the discussion of funding requests, Saffer said that after six years of such requests coming before the commission, he felt that "throwing money at the problems of the county may be failing." Entertaining such requests was "getting far afield" from the legal mandate of the commission, Saffer added, noting that the commission's primary duties are to manage the finances of the county, supervise courthouse records, county administration, roads and emergency communications.
"We should be careful not to become a funding agency for the state of West Virginia on a range of social services," said Saffer.
Saffer added the money might be better spent paying the county's jail bill and standing firmly behind the consequences of "addictive behavior."
Walker noted that the requests before the commission totaled $64,000. With four meetings to disburse up to $200,000, Walker said he wanted the commission to pace itself and cap its contributions at $50,000 per quarterly meeting. Walker said he was also concerned that the amount of requests was growing and not decreasing.
"To me, that says the problems are getting worse, rather than getting better," said Walker.
Walker added that more should be done to reduce the street value of prescription drugs and make stealing and selling medication a less lucrative and appealing line of work.
Despite these bleak characterizations of the county's current situation, the commission granted the following funding requests:
Sheila Rose – Youth Health Service, Inc. - $4,000 of $5,000 requested for resiliency programs that serve children ages 3-17.
Bill Turner – Family Refuge Center - $15,000 of $20,000 requested for services to domestic violence victims, including shelter services, emergency assistance and victims advocacy work in Pocahontas County.
Marilyn Norris – Pocahontas County Prevention Coalition - $20,000 of $20,000 requested for county-wide substance abuse prevention programs.
Gibbs Kinderman and Mike Smith - $2,500 of $5,000 requested for the 150th Anniversary Droop Mountain Battle Mural Project, to create a two-building mural in Marlinton depicting the Civil War battle.
Pocahontas Memorial Hospital - $3,000 of $3,000 requested for a road-side hospital entrance sign.
The commission took no action on funding requests from the Child and Youth Advocacy Center and Mountain Resource Conservation and Development Area .
The commission also discussed or took action on the following matters:
Fleming said work on the East Fork Industrial Park remediation project was nearly complete. A walk-through, inspection and final meeting will be scheduled soon, with representatives from the U.S. Department of Agriculture and the West Virginia Department of Environmental Protection.
The commission accepted the lone, $16,000 bid from Total Tech, of Frankford, to upgrade the air conditioning system that serves the courtroom, with the condition that a Total Tech representative attend the next commission meeting to discuss the details of its bid.
The commission asked Mike Cain to solicit estimates for a new air conditioning system for the remainder of the courhouse to replace the current system, which is 38 years old. The commission currently has $320,000 available in its bricks-and-mortar fund, for such projects.
The commission re-appointed Janet Ghigo to the board of Pocahontas Memorial Hospital. Buckeye resident Walt Weiford was also appointed to the board. Both are appointed to serve on the board until July 31, 2018.
The commission re-appointed Michael Holstine, Caroline Sharp and Brenda Doss to the board of Pocahontas County Parks and Recreation. Two additional vacancies on the board will be filled by John Arnold and Glen Galloway. A motion to appoint Roger Forman to the board died for a lack of a second. Saffer opposed the attorney's appointment because he currently represents a client who is suing the county.
The commission asked Pocahontas County 911 and Emergency management Director Shawn Dunbrack to consult with the residents of Galford Road, off of Back Mountain Road, about changing its name to Foe Road.
The commission approved budget revisions of $26,019 for the county 911 center in light of recent grants and personnel changes.
The next regular meeting of the Pocahontas County Commission is August 21 at 5:30 p.m.
Drew Tanner may be reached by e-mail at email@example.com.