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Water company offers tips to protect home in cold weather

The Free Press WV

West Virginia American Water is advising homeowners to make sure they prevent household pipes from freezing as temperatures turn cold.

In addition to insulating walls and pipes and draining sprinklers, the water company says when temperatures drop, open cabinet doors to expose pipes to warmer room temperatures and keep water moving through pipes by letting a trickle run.

Also, make sure the meter pit lid is closed tightly and report any problems. And the company says don’t remove snow from the meter pit lid, because it acts as additional insulation.

If pipes freeze, shut off water at the main shut-off valve. Apply heat to the frozen pipe with a hair dryer, space heater or hot water. Don’t leave a space heater unattended, and don’t use kerosene heaters or open flames to warm pipes.

West Virginia University partners with coding group

The Free Press WV

West Virginia University has become a regional partner of a network that works to provide computer science education opportunities to students in kindergarten through high school.

The university’s Center for Excellence in STEM Education announced last week it was selected as a regional partner of Code.org.

Center Director Gay Stewart says the partnership is a way to help make sure West Virginia students have necessary skills while improving jobs and economic growth.

The center is creating CodeWV to support increased accessibility to computer science for students in K-12 public schools across the state, including offering professional development to educators.

Richwood Council members discuss the town’s financial worries

The Free Press WV

Local leaders in Richwood are concerned that the town’s financial problems go far beyond the disputed purchases on the mayor’s state-issued purchasing card.

“I want you to leave with this. It’s not $100 on a pcard. We are in massive financial trouble,” Councilman Chuck Toussieng told members of the community during a Nov. 30 council meeting.

“I wish it were that. I wish it were a couple thousand dollars on the purchase card. We wouldn’t be here. We wouldn’t be in the newspaper. We wouldn’t be on Facebook. We wouldn’t be having our name sullied. It’s much bigger than that, and we are hoping to survive it.”

Council members were voting to start impeachment proceedings against Mayor Bob Henry Baber when they began discussing hundreds of thousands of payroll taxes owed to state and federal government.

The current liability to the city, they said, is $87,000 owed to state government and $500,000 to the Internal Revenue Service.

A citizen arose and asked how long it had taken to rack up that much debt.

Council members said the taxes went unpaid from June 30 until city officials were informed two weeks before the meeting.

The taxes went unpaid as the town was still dealing with the catastrophic flooding of the summer of 2016.

“Part of the reason the taxes got so big so quickly is we went from having 26 city employees to 87 W-2 city employees after the flood,” Toussieng said. “We had a payroll of $202,000 in July, which is 20 times what we would normally have. So when that happens, your tax liability goes up.”

Now Richwood continues to rebuild from the flooding and also has a mountain of tax debt among its worries.

Council member Glen Weiler explained that the city found out about the debt the hard way.

Grants had been flowing to the town for a local water project. That money was intercepted by the state, which meant the city was then liable to the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers.

“That’s when the state notified us they had a lien on us. They said it’s $57,800. We immediately contacted them and said ‘How do we deal with this?’ Weiler said.

The city has worked out a payment schedule over the next 72 months, Weiler said.

With penalties and interest, the baseline debt to the state of $57,800 grows to about $87,000, city leaders said.

“So as we’re doing that we’re going holy cow. Then the IRS walked in and said by the way, you owe us $311,807 — and we’re going ‘Say what? How can we possibly have that?’”

Similarly, that base debt grows to about $500,000 when interest and penalties are applied, city leaders said.

“So when we started looking into it, that’s when we realized things are not the way we understood it. So we’re still trying to wrap our arms around it,” Weiler said.

Richwood is a mountain town of about 2,000 people. During the early 19th and 20th centuries, it was a booming coal and timber town. In recent years, it’s been striving to become an artisan community and technical center.

The town was among the worst hit during the 2016 flood, which caused heavy damage to Richwood high and middle schools. Residents have been in a fight for months over rebuilding the schools rather than constructing consolidated schools elsewhere in the county.

Nicholas County Commission President Ken Altizer is among those expressing concern about Richwood’s mounting troubles, particularly the latest tax debt.

“I do know there are some problems. We’re concerned,” Altizer said. “The only thing that would happen is if they would dissolve as a city, which I don’t have any clue that they’re going to.

“We don’t get involved too much in Summersville or Richwood unless they ask for our support or help. So far they haven’t asked, and we’ve offered on several occasions.”

Hints of Richwood’s financial problems started to appear in September when Baber was asked to resign and then placed on paid administrative leave through a vote of council. Baber was asked to account for thousands of dollars on his state-issued purchasing card.

After Baber openly discussed on Facebook an investigation of the state Auditor’s office, the Auditor confirmed the investigation.

The investigation has gone beyond the purchasing card, though. Members of the auditor’s staff for several weeks have been going through Richwood’s financial records over the past few years.

One of the stated reasons for starting impeachment proceedings against Baber was the payroll tax debt that has accumulated in recent months.

From his seat in the crowd, Baber stood up and said he’s not at fault.

“A lot of these charges are completely bogus and fake. I would never direct somebody to not pay taxes,” Baber said.

He continued, “I would never direct someone to not pay taxes. That’s one of the first things you do and you always do.”

Toussieng and other council members said they are not out to get Baber. During the meeting, they told community members they are trying to take precautions to preserve the city’s financial integrity.

“What we’re saying is this is a small business, this small business needs someone to run it,” Toussieng said. “I’m not saying Bob is a bad person. He’s just not good at running this small thing.”

Toussieng went on to emphasize again that Richwood has enormous financial problems for a town its size.

“What we’re doing here tonight is a small part of our problem,” Toussieng told community members. “We have a massive problem. We are a small business with a ridiculously massive debt. It’s going to be difficult to overcome. I can’t stress that enough. We had no idea what the scope was until we started looking at what’s owed. It’s going to be a lot of work.

“If you truly care about the city and aren’t picking tribes, we have to work and support each other and the city to figure out how to get through it.”

~~  Brad McElhinny ~~

Former lumber company executive admits embezzlement

The Free Press WV

Federal authorities say a former executive for a West Virginia lumber company has admitted to wire fraud for embezzling more than $800,000.

According to prosecutors, 42-year-old James Matthew Miller pleaded guilty to two counts on Wednesday.

He was chief financial officer for the company based in Beckley until September 2013.

Authorities say that he issued payments to a sham vendor that never hauled or delivered logs and falsely inflated inventories to conceal it.

The vendor cashed or deposited the checks in his bank account, then gave Miller with the money, minus a small amount.

He could face up to 20 years in federal prison at sentencing March 15.

Two charged after stealing toys from donations box

The Free Press WV

Two people have been charged after allegedly stealing from a Toys for Tots donations box in Mercer County.

According to authorities, Bobby Ray Thornton and Brenda Mathena were allegedly caught on camera Friday taking several bags of toys from the box.

Footage also showed the two leaving in a vehicle with a West Virginia license plate.

Officers found the two at an apartment on Old Bluefield Road.

Musicians coming to West Virginia hospital

The Free Press WV

The Volunteer Office at WVU Medicine and the West Virginia University Music Therapy Program have launched a volunteer program to provide music for patients and families at Ruby Memorial Hospital in Morgantown.

Professor Amy Rodgers Smith says trained musicians, both individuals and groups, are starting to play in designated public spaces and waiting areas.

Rodgers Smith says research has shown that music encourages patients to be more motivated in their treatment.

She says it also provides emotional support for patients and families and an outlet for patients to express their feelings.

Musicians who want to play at the hospital are asked to contact the Volunteer Office.

Woman reunites with daughter she gave up for adoption

The Free Press WV

Former Wetzel County resident Debra Haught has faced many hardships and struggles throughout her lifetime, but with her strong Methodist faith, she believes there are no coincidences in life — only miracles from God who works in mysterious ways.

When she was 15 years old, Haught found out she was pregnant by her boyfriend, Bud Whitehead.

Knowing that they were much too young to raise a child, the young couple made the difficult choice to give their baby girl up for adoption. Not a single day passed that Haught didn’t think of her baby girl, though.

Often crying herself to sleep at night, she needed reassurance that her baby was safe and with a good family. Haught visited the adoption agency and learned that her daughter was adopted by a wonderful family, who named her Julie. Haught was able to see a picture of her beautiful baby girl as well.

Unfortunately, that was the only information she was able to obtain. Knowing that her daughter was safe and sound with a good family provided her with some relief, though. Haught and Whitehead later wed, and went on to have three sons — Jamie, Jason and Jared.

Although she loved and adored her sons, Haught spent nearly 50 years of her life with an emptiness and aching in her heart.

Throughout those 50 years, Haught experienced many highs and lows in her life. Whitehead and Haught eventually divorced and Whitehead passed away nearly five years ago.

Tragedy struck last April when Haught’s middle son, Jason, lost his battle with drug addiction. Haught was completely devastated that she not only had lost one child, but now two.

After watching the show Long Lost Family, about adoption reunions, Haught knew that the only way to mend her broken heart was to find her baby girl. That Friday evening, she made the decision to begin researching genealogy websites.

However, to her surprise, Haught received a letter from the adoption agency the very next morning. Julie was looking for her. The two had somehow made the decision to find each other at the same exact time.

“It was truly a miracle from God, and I believe Jason helped put us together,” said Haught.

Julie Stebbins grew up with two wonderful parents. She had learned that she was adopted when she was just 6 years old, but it didn’t phase her much then because her life was wonderful with her adoptive parents.

She didn’t really begin to think too much about her biological family until she married and had two sons of her own. Then, just recently, Stebbins’ adoptive mother passed away, and the longing to know her biological mother really took a hold of her. Stebbins began searching for her mother months before Haught made the decision to find Julie.

“Something just told me that it wasn’t the right time yet,” Stebbins said.

A coincidence — no — it’s more a miracle that the right time in Julie’s heart was also the right time for her biological mother.

After exchanging several emails, Haught, who lives in Myrtle Beach, S.C., and Stebbins, who resides in Charleston, met each other halfway in Mount Airy, N.C., the first weekend in July.

The mother and daughter had an instant connection and learned they shared many similarities, such as their faith and politics. Through learning about one another, Haught and Stebbins have found many coincidences such as shared family names.

“It’s just been so natural,” said Stebbins.

Stebbins reunited with her extended biological family on Oct. 28 at the Lewis-Wetzel Family Center.

Tragedy brought this family to one another, and together, they are mending their broken hearts.

“The whole experience has been mind blowing, phenomenal and emotional,” said Haught.

$3M to help open long-term drug treatment center for women

The Free Press WV

As part of a plan to distribute nearly $21 million for nine anti-substance abuse programs throughout West Virginia, the state Department of Health and Human Resources is allocating a $3 million grant for a faith-based group to open a long-term care center for women.

Heart2Heart/Living Free Ohio Valley Inc. President Sharon Travis says the grant will purchase the former Paul VI Pastoral Center and establish the new drug treatment center, which will serve approximately 100 women.

Roman Catholic Diocese of Wheeling-Charleston spokesman Tim Bishop said church officials closed the 35-room center because of declining use.

Travis says priority will be given to northern West Virginia residents and those who have overdosed within the last 30 days or are active users.

The center plans to open in 2018.

WVU student radio station still on the air

The Free Press WV

West Virginia University’s student-run radio station is on the air despite a temporary shutdown from a job action by student workers.

School officials said they met with key members and that the complaints that led to the walkout at WWVU on Thursday are being investigated.

Those with relevant information were asked to file a complaint online or contact the school’s Title IX office.

Title IX addresses sex discrimination, including harassment.

The complaints were not disclosed publicly by the school, though there were references to harassment in student postings on social media.

Station general manager Matthew Fouty, a WVU employee, tells the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette he’s the subject of complaints to the university’s Title IX office by five current and former students about his comments.

He says the complaints are unfounded.

5 accused of skimming card information in West Virginia

The Free Press WV

Federal authorities have charged five people from south Florida with fraud, alleging they used skimming devices to steal credit or debit card account information from gas pumps in West Virginia since late August.

According to the indictment, they possessed 15 skimming devices and used them in Monongalia County and elsewhere, using the information to make cash withdrawals and purchases in the region where they got the information.

Prosecutors say four are scheduled to appear in court next week, and a warrant has been issued for the fifth person.

WVDA Encourages Farms to Participate in 2017 Ag Census

The Free Press WV

The West Virginia Department of Agriculture (WVDA) is encouraging all farmers and farm operations to participate in the 2017 Census of Agriculture. The U.S. Department of Agriculture’s (USDA) National Agricultural Statistics Service (NASS) began mailing the survey in late November.

“The census allows the USDA and WVDA to get a clear picture on the status of agriculture in our state. Several funding streams are also dependent upon this data,” said Commissioner of Agriculture Kent Leonhardt. “Producers should participate. It matters to West Virginia.”

The census will be mailed in several phases through December. Farm operations of all sizes, which produced and sold, or normally would have sold, $1,000 or more of agricultural product in 2017, are included in the census. The census is the only source of uniform, comprehensive and impartial agriculture data for every state and county in the nation.

“Reporting on the upcoming 2017 Census of Agriculture will give West Virginia producers the opportunity to shape programs and initiatives that benefit young and beginning farmers as well help expand access to resources for women, veteran and minority farms,” said West Virginia State Statistician Charmaine Wilson. “Census data is often used to aid producers who wish to diversify into new markets or who want to grow specialty and organic crops.”

Producers can respond to the census online or by mail. The deadline to respond is February 05, 2018. All information will be kept confidential and will only be used for statistical purposes.

For more information, visit www.agcensus.usda.gov or call 800.727.9540.

WVDEP waives water quality certification for Atlantic Coast Pipeline

The Free Press WV

Officials with the West Virginia Department of Environmental Protection announced their decision to waive the 401 Water Quality Certification for the Atlantic Coast Pipeline project.

A project of Dominion Energy and several partners, the pipeline will cross more than 600 miles between Harrison County and Greensville County, Virginia, to transport natural gas produced in West Virginia to energy users in Virginia and North Carolina.

Aaron Ruby, a spokesman for Dominion Energy, said the company was pleased with the decision.

“Today’s decision by the West Virginia Department of Environmental Protection is another significant milestone for the project and a key step toward beginning construction later this year,” he said. “This brings West Virginia one step closer to the thousands of jobs and hundreds of millions of dollars in economic activity the project will bring to communities across the state.”

According to information on the project’s website, the pipeline is estimated to generate 17,240 jobs across West Virginia, Virginia and North Carolina and bring more than $2.7 billion in total economic activity.

Approximately 7,200 construction workers will be needed in 2018 and 5,600 in 2019 as the construction is at its peak.

Governor Justice Issues Statement on National Pearl Harbor Remembrance Day

The Free Press WV

Governor Jim Justice issued the following statement after President Donald Trump proclaimed Thursday, December 07, 2017, as National Pearl Harbor Remembrance Day.

“Seventy-six years ago today, Japanese air and naval forces carried out a surprise attack on the United States naval base at Pearl Harbor, Hawaii. Over 2,400 Americans lost their lives, and over 1,000 United States service members and civilians were wounded in the attack. The attack would propel the United States into World War II, where over 200,000 West Virginians would serve.

“On this National Pearl Harbor Remembrance Day, we honor those who lost their lives serving our country and all the veterans who selflessly defended our homeland during World War II. Pearl Harbor remains a symbol of American resilience and resolve, and we pray for all those that have served and continue to serve in our military. May we never forget their bravery and sacrifice.“

Elderly man dies in Calhoun County home invasion

The Free Press WV

A elderly man died Tuesday during a deadly home invasion at his Big Bend residence.

According to the West Virginia State Police, Eugene Stevens attempted to defend himself against a group of people entering his home on Cain Road.

One of the intruders was hit by gunfire, suffering wounds in the abdomen and back of the head.

The wounded person, Travis Boggs, of Stinson, was dropped off at Minnie Hamilton Health System in Grantsville. Troopers said they are able to connect Boggs’ wounds to Stevens’ death.

Authorities found an older Ford Explorer in southern Calhoun County connected to the home invasion, noting it was burned.

Ritchie County man found guilty

The Free Press WV

A Richie County man from Pullman man was found guilty of 14 sex crimes by a jury in Ritchie County Court.

Benny Workman, age 43, was found guilty of six counts of second-degree sexual assault, seven counts of sexual abuse by a custodian and one count of first-degree sexual abuse.

Workman sexually assaulted a 14-year-old girl on five, separate occasions between June and July 2016.

The 14-year-old girl also told West Virginia State Police that another girl was sexually assaulted at one of the same times that she was.

The 14-year-old girl was staying the night with a friend when the assault occurred, police said.

Workman will be sentenced at a later date.

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