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G-ICYMI™: WV’s Broadband Ranking

The Free Press WV
The Free Press WV


Frontier Communications and cable companies like Suddenlink are opposing the West Virginia Legislature’s latest attempt to improve high-speed internet across the state.

At a public hearing Friday, lobbyists for Frontier and the cable industry skewered parts of a bill (HB3093) that would authorize a pilot project in which three cities or counties would band together to build a broadband network and offer internet service to customers.

The industry lobbyists said legislation should target areas without high-speed internet — not places that already have service.

“When you spend taxpayer dollars and resources to focus on areas that already have broadband just so you can have a third or fourth choice, you are denying and depriving service to those who have none,” said Kathy Cosco, a Frontier executive and lobbyist.

Frontier and cable internet providers also oppose a section of the bill that would allow 20 or more families or businesses to form nonprofit co-ops that would provide internet service in rural areas.

Mark Polen, who represents the cable industry, said the bill should be changed to “make it clear these pilot projects and co-ops can’t be deployed where there’s already service.”

“That would be critical to the protection of our investment,” Polen said. “Anything that’s going to result in public subsidies being given to those that are going to overbuild private investment is not the proper policy. Let’s focus on the unserved areas and not allow this program to turn into an overbuilding initiative.”

Smaller internet providers like Bridgeport-based Citynet support the legislation. Citynet CEO Jim Martin told lawmakers that Frontier and the cable industry want to shut out competitors and protect their stranglehold on broadband service across the state.

“There is a reason they’re opposed to it, and that’s because this bill is going to enable competition,” Martin said.

Frontier, which is the largest internet provider in the state, also opposes a section of the bill that bars companies from advertising maximum or “up to” speeds. That measure aims to block firms from advertising internet speeds that they seldom — or never — deliver to customers.

Cosco said the measure unfairly stops companies from touting improved service. Frontier stopped advertising an “up to” speed in 2014, she said.

“If providers aren’t allowed to promote the service that’s available, it would be detrimental to the state’s economic development,” Cosco said.

Martin said his company would have no problem whatsoever with the ban on deceptive advertising. Internet providers would still be able to advertise minimum download and upload speeds available to customers.

“If you have a network and you’re comfortable with it, you should be able to advertise your minimum speed, and then stick with it,” Martin said. “It’s fantastic we aren’t going to allow for false advertising and representations of an ‘up to’ speed.”

Speakers at the public hearing also praised the bill for establishing procedures that would give internet providers quicker access to telephone poles used to hang fiber cable. Smaller firms said they sometimes have to wait months or years to use the poles.

But Cosco said the proposed changes conflict with Federal Communication Commission rules. And a leader of a union that represents Frontier technicians said the proposed pole procedures pose a safety risk.

“It would allow unqualified personnel from third-party contractors to transfer equipment on a utility pole to make room for a new provider’s equipment,” said Elaine Harris, who represents the Communications Workers of America in West Virginia.

ORIGINAL STORY 03.16.2017 – West Virginia lawmakers unveiled comprehensive broadband legislation Thursday that aims to spur competition among internet providers in rural areas and stop deceptive advertising about internet speeds.

House Bill 3093 would allow up to three cities or counties to start a pilot project by banding together and building a broadband network that provides high-speed internet service. Twenty or more families or businesses in rural communities also could form nonprofit co-ops that would qualify for federal grants to expand internet service, according to the bill.

“This is superb,” said Ron Pearson, a retired federal bankruptcy judge and broadband expansion advocate. “We’ve got to have competition in providing internet and other services that travel over fiber to households and businesses or we’re going to be stuck in the dark ages of competition in West Virginia.”

Lobbyists for Frontier Communications and cable internet providers already are raising objections to the legislation. The bill will face tough sledding in the Senate. Senate President Mitch Carmichael, R-Jackson, also works as Frontier’s sales director in West Virginia.

“We believe connecting West Virginia citizens is vital to our shared success, and any legislative proposal should focus on reaching the unserved and rural markets of our state,” Frontier spokesman Andy Malinoski said. “We are, however, concerned that House Bill 3093 may not accomplish that goal.”

Delegate Roger Hanshaw, R-Clay, gave a 30-minute overview of the broadband legislation Thursday in the House chamber. Lawmakers have been working on the bill for months.

One of the bill’s key selling points: It requires no state funding — welcome news as lawmakers grapple with a $500 million budget deficit.

“We need revenue-neutral solutions to problems,” Hanshaw told lobbyists and fellow lawmakers who attended his presentation. “This is such a bill.”

In addition to broadband co-ops, the legislation would forbid internet companies from falsely advertising maximum download speeds — also referred to as “up to” speeds — while providing significantly slower speeds to customers. The internet firms could still advertise minimum internet service speeds.

Frontier, West Virginia’s largest internet provider, faces a class-action lawsuit over false advertising. Attorney General Patrick Morrisey also has taken the company to task over internet speeds.

“This [section of the bill] protects consumers from deceptive advertising,” Hanshaw said.

The legislation also expands the powers of the state Broadband Enhancement Council.

The 13-member panel would be responsible for collecting data about internet speeds and broadband service across the state — and publishing the “mapping” information. Data would be collected voluntarily from internet providers and consumers.

West Virginia ranks 48th in the nation for broadband accessibility.

“More data is always better,” Hanshaw said. “It gives businesses looking to locate here a definitive tool they can use to make decisions on where to locate a facility.

” Also under the bill:

The broadband council would collect and distribute grant money. The council also would act as a “think tank” and make recommendations to the Legislature.

Internet providers could string fiber-optic cable in shallow “micro-trenches,” which are less expensive to dig than traditional utility trenches.

Companies wanting to expand broadband could place their fiber on telephone poles more quickly under new, expedited procedures.

A program would allow landowners to voluntarily grant easements for fiber lines.

~~  Eric Eyre Gazette-Mail ~~

G-ICYMI™: Two Gilmer County Board of Education Members Resign

The Free Press WV
The Free Press WV

2 Gilmer board members resign as school system freed from state control

Gilmer County’s locally elected school board will at least nominally regain control of the county’s public school system Monday, but two of the five board members have called it quits.

Board members Carl Armour, Norma Hurley and Robert Minigh voted Thursday to approve the memorandum of understanding the state Board of Education required them to sign in order to regain local control.

“It means the return of democracy to Gilmer County,” Hurley said. “It means that the elected representatives of the people will be able to do the job they were elected to do, and that’s very important.”

They then approved the resignations of the two absent board members: Tom Ratliff and Bill Simmons.

Ratliff’s wife said he wasn’t home Thursday evening.

Even though Simmons told the Gazette-Mail Thursday he disagreed with the return of local control at this time, he said it wasn’t the reason for his resignation, which he said he believes he submitted in early November.

He said his wife died in September, and he now wants to use his background in higher education — he was president of Glenville State College for 21 years, among other education roles — to help train teachers for today’s classrooms.

The board members present at Thursday’s meeting said they weren’t aware until the meeting began that Ratliff and Simmons had submitted their resignations.

The December state Office of Education Audits report that recommended returning local control to Gilmer noted that one unnamed board member said “resignation from the board is a possibility if local control is reinstated and improvements are not made.” Simmons said he wasn’t that member.

Gabe Devono, Gilmer’s state-appointed superintendent who opposed the return of local control and has fought with some Gilmer board members in the past, said Ratliff and Simmons sent him resignation letters with no explanation that were effective as of January 01, and he had held off on presenting the resignations to the board until Thursday, in hopes they would change their minds.

Devono said that to his understanding, the remaining board members will have 45 days to pick replacement board members, who will serve until the next election in May 2018, when every seat but Minigh’s will be up for election.

The memorandum of understanding requires the Gilmer board, which will see its powers returned under the agreement, to keep Devono until June 30. Devono said he plans to stay until that date, but doesn’t know whether he’ll apply for a contract extension.

He could leave before June 30 if he and the board mutually agree to part ways. He said his contract, which pays him $126,000 annually, expires June 30 anyway.

The MOU, which also wasn’t provided by state education officials to the Gazette-Mail or Gilmer board members until Thursday’s meeting, also puts Gilmer on a three-year “provisional oversight” period.

“If at any time within the three year provisional period the state board determines that intervention in the operation of the school system is again necessary, the state board shall hold a public hearing in the affected county so that the reasons for the intervention and the concerns of the citizens of the county may be heard,” the roughly two-page document states, citing a section of state law.

“However, the state board may intervene immediately in the operation of the county school system with all the powers, duties and responsibilities contained in subsection (m) of this [state law] section,” the MOU continues, “if the state board finds that the conditions precedent to intervention exist once again and that the state board had previously intervened in the operation of the same school system and had concluded that intervention within the preceding five years.”

And, even once fully freed from the special status that’s often dubbed “state control” or “state intervention” in the education world, Gilmer will still be subject to the many state laws and state school board policies all other West Virginia public school systems are subject to.

Gilmer is the state’s lowest-enrollment public school system, at only about 840 students.

Thursday’s meeting lasted about 30 minutes in a cramped conference room that Devono said was used because it had the teleconference phone where state education officials could call in to discuss the MOU.

Now, Fayette County, with a roughly 6,490 enrollment, is left as West Virginia’s only state-controlled public school system, though the state School Building Authority’s board voted last month to fund a state school board-supported plan for school consolidation.

“Historically, the board in Fayette County has been contentious, demonstrated primarily by the issue of school closures and consolidation,” read a OEPA report before the Fayette state takeover. “The [OEPA] Team observed that while many small elementary schools had been closed, the high schools remained with the exception of Gauley Bridge High School. A member or members of the board have been unwilling to deal with the very small high schools and support a plan to combine some and improve severe facility deficiencies, limited curriculum, and poorly achieving schools.”

Gilmer itself has seen consolidation while under state control. It’s closed Glenville, Normantown, Sand Fork and Troy elementaries; only a new Gilmer County Elementary, and the intercounty Leading Creek Elementary on the line between Gilmer and Lewis counties, have taken their place.

The state school board decided last month to offer the freedom deal to Gilmer, three years after the state school board voted to return partial control to Gilmer’s board.

The deal came after an Office of Education Performance Audits report on Gilmer — based upon an audit conducted on October 27 and 28 of this year — recommended for the first time that the state school board release its hold on Gilmer.

That recommendation was despite the fact that the report noted Devono and two of Gilmer’s five local school board members told the OEPA team that they opposed the return of local democracy to their county. The report didn’t name the specific Gilmer members in opposition.

“The superintendent opposed the ending of the state control, stating that the board remained dysfunctional, politicized, and incapable of functioning as a local board,” the report states. “He stated more time was needed for the treasurer and personnel staff to acclimate to their job responsibilities.”

“The Gilmer County Board of Education is operating well in spite of the still somewhat dysfunctional county board and the poor relationship between some board members and the state appointed superintendent,” the audit concludes.

“Based on evidence and interviews, the OEPA Team found the current local board and state appointed superintendent will not make significant progress in relations regardless of state or local control. Differing personalities, personal agendas, and political pressure will continue to plague the improvement in superintendent/board relations. Unused school property, personnel, and the role of the local board in operations will continue to be a problem for the county,” the audit continues.

“The intention for the initial state takeover of Gilmer County Board of Education was due to improper functioning of the county board of education office,” the audit says. “This issue has been satisfactorily corrected under the state appointed superintendent and central office staff. Therefore, it is the recommendation of the OEPA that full control be returned to Gilmer County Board of Education and allow the county to determine its future operations.”

The audit notes that the Gilmer school system’s personnel department “Stated that return to local control would most likely cause the current superintendent to be removed by the local board,” and stated that it believed “the State Board should maintain control of the local board.”

While the audit notes that workers in Gilmer’s finance and curriculum offices “stated that without a strong superintendent, the board members could revert to micro-management of the system,” these employees also said Gilmer “is capable of self-management and State control needs to end,” that “the community feels that with state control, the school system is not theirs” and “the next [excess property tax] levy vote may fail if the system remains under state control.”

“The board of education office is functioning efficiently and in compliance with State code and [state board] policy,” the audit states. “Student achievement is stable and increasing.”

~~  Ryan Quinn ~~

ICYMI™: OEPA Recommends Return of Gilmer County Board of Education to Local Control

The Free Press WV
The Free Press WV
State school board may release Gilmer system from state control

For the first time since the West Virginia Board of Education seized control of Gilmer County’s public school system half a decade ago, a state Office of Education Performance Audits report is recommending that the state school board release its hold on Gilmer.

That recommendation is despite the fact that the new report — based upon an audit conducted on October 27 and 28 — notes Gilmer’s state-appointed superintendent, Gabe Devono, and two of its five local school board members told the OEPA team that they opposed the return of local democracy to their county. 

“The superintendent opposed the ending of the state control, stating that the board remained dysfunctional, politicized, and incapable of functioning as a local board,” the report states. “He stated more time was needed for the treasurer and personnel [and] staff to acclimate to their job responsibilities.”

The state school board, which oversees the OEPA, could approve the recommendation next week. The board meeting is set to begin at 10 a.m. Wednesday in Room 353 of Building 6 of the Capitol Complex, in Charleston.

If the board’s meeting agenda isn’t finished Wednesday, the meeting will continue at 9 a.m. Thursday in the same room.

“The Gilmer County Board of Education is operating well in spite of the still somewhat dysfunctional county board and the poor relationship between some board members and the state appointed superintendent,” the audit concludes. “The OEPA Team stated the board of education office will continue to run effectively if the local board members respect and follow their roles and responsibilities provided in State code, working with and through the county superintendent.”

“Based on evidence and interviews, the OEPA Team found the current local board and state appointed superintendent will not make significant progress in relations regardless of state or local control. Differing personalities, personal agendas, and political pressure will continue to plague the improvement in superintendent/board relations. Unused school property, personnel, and the role of the local board in operations will continue to be a problem for the county,” the audit continues.

“The intention for the initial state takeover of Gilmer County Board of Education was due to improper functioning of the county board of education office,” the audit continues. “This issue has been satisfactorily corrected under the state appointed superintendent and central office staff. Therefore, it is the recommendation of the OEPA that full control be returned to Gilmer County Board of Education and allow the county to determine its future operations.”

The state board previously returned partial control of Gilmer’s school system to its local board after a December 2013 OEPA review, but the new OEPA report recommends going all the way.

A vote to return control of Gilmer’s school system to its locally elected school board members would leave Fayette County as the only remaining public school system in the state still under state control.

But a return of control to Gilmer’s board could come with caveats that maintain state power, including a possible requirement that the local board continue employing Devono for a number of years. Devono didn’t return requests for comment late Friday afternoon, and the OEPA audit doesn’t have a specific recommendation in this area.

“I haven’t heard one thing about it,” Gilmer board member Carl Armour said when asked Friday whether he’s heard if the state board would impose such a caveat. Armour, who’s in favor of a return of local control, said he’d give anyone who wanted the position fair consideration.

When contacted about the issue late Friday afternoon, state Department of Education spokeswoman Kristin Anderson wrote in an email that she didn’t have any details regarding what the potential memorandum of understanding between the Gilmer and state school boards may entail. She did say some sort of memorandum of understanding would have to be signed by both state board President Mike Green and the Gilmer board if the state board votes to return full control.

She also wrote that she didn’t have any details about a separate item on next week’s state school board agenda that says “Motion(s) may be considered regarding employment actions related to the office of State Superintendent.”

Current State Superintendent Michael Martirano announced September 20 that he planned to leave his position June 30, 2017. The next day, Maryland’s Worcester County school district announced he was one of the two finalists for the local superintendent position there, but on September 30 the Worcester school board chose the other finalist.

Attached to next week’s state school board agenda is the “Gilmer County Central Office Follow Up Audit” to an audit that was conducted in February. The new, late-October audit notes that the Gilmer school system’s personnel department “Stated that return to local control would most likely cause the current superintendent to be removed by the local board,” and stated that it believed “the State Board should maintain control of the local board.” 

While the audit notes that workers in Gilmer’s finance and curriculum offices “Stated that without a strong superintendent, the board members could revert to micro-management of the system.” These employees also said Gilmer “is capable of self-management and State control needs to end,” that “the community feels that with state control, the school system is not theirs” and “the next [excess property tax] levy vote may fail if the system remains under state control.”

“The board of education office is functioning efficiently and in compliance with State code and [state board] policy,” the audit states. “Student achievement is stable and increasing.”

~~  Ryan Quinn - Gazette-Mail ~~

Audit: Get Rid of RESAs, Keep Services

The Free Press WV

A legislative audit of the state’s eight Regional Education Service Agencies says that while many of the services they provide are important, the independent agencies themselves are no longer necessary.

John Sylvia, Director of the legislative auditor’s Performance Evaluation and Research Division, presented the report during interim meetings Tuesday.

The audit concludes that while the county-level services the RESAs provide are important, those services can continue without maintaining the agencies themselves.

RESAs are regional extensions of the state Department of Education, but the audit says those agencies operate independently, costing taxpayers millions of dollars.

Sylvia explained the audit recommends restructuring or getting rid of the RESAs altogether.

“The core services should come from regional staff of the DOE, not regional agencies,“ he said. “Restructuring RESAs in this way would present opportunities to eliminate significant duplication and redundancies.”

The state Department of Education and RESAs were given until January to present a formal response to lawmakers.

In a written response given to lawmakers Tuesday, the RESAs say the audit was conducted “outside of proper assessment protocol.”



The Free Press WV
The Free Press WV

Audit recommends shifting authority of RESAs to state

The Regional Education Service Agency office in Dunbar, one of eight throughout West Virginia. A legislative audit recommends stripping the RESA’s of their authority in an attempt to save money.

A newly publicized legislative audit recommends taking away “all autonomy and independence” from West Virginia’s eight Regional Education Service Agencies — the multi-county organizations that are supposed to aid county public school systems — and transferring the agencies’ power and employees to the state Department of Education.

Officials from RESAs, which help school systems save money by allowing them to share needed services, such as speech pathologists and other specialized employees, strongly disagreed with the audit’s conclusions.

Tuesday’s report was the latest in a line of reviews of the agencies over the years. The report did include a survey of West Virginia school superintendents; 34 out of the 55 responded, and 25 of the respondents said they felt there would be “significant adverse effects if RESAs were discontinued.”

“There is significant overlap of state involvement in RESA activities and plans,” John Sylvia, director of the Performance Evaluation and Research Division of the Legislative Auditor’s Office, told lawmakers Tuesday. The report was presented to an interim legislative meeting of the joint standing committees on education, government organization and government operations.

“The State Board of Education should consider administering the regional service purpose through regional staff of the Department of Education as opposed to regional agencies,” the report states. “Therefore, all autonomy and independence of RESAs should be effectively eliminated, and RESA staff should come under the Department.”

Sylvia said the report, which took 12 months to develop, suggests maintaining RESAs’ regional councils, which currently help lead those agencies, as powerless advisory boards.

He said the report recommends paring the councils’ memberships down to just the school superintendents of the counties in each RESA in order to save money on things like council member transportation and the $100 payments per meeting. The councils currently include teachers, principals and others.

The report doesn’t include how much the state could save annually by getting rid of the alleged duplicative RESA services, but Sylvia suggested a minimum of $1.5 million annually, including nearly $1 million just through eliminating the positions of the eight RESA executive directors.

“The State Board of Education should define the regional service purpose, exclude Adult Education and Public Service Training from the purpose, and also phase out or transfer to appropriate agencies other RESA programs that do not serve public school systems,” states the report.

“Emphasis should be placed on technical assistance to low performing schools and professional development that leads to improved student achievement,” the report states.

It continues: “Shared RESA employees should become county employees under the authority of the lead county of each RESA region, while non-shared RESA employees should become employees of the county for which they are under contract.”

Nick Zervos, executive director of RESA 6, provided a written response criticizing the report. He said his letter was reflective of the feelings of all RESA directors and RESA regional councils.

He wrote that the final report seems to focus too narrowly on two charges from the Legislature to the RESAs — professional development and technical assistance to low-performing schools — while not sufficiently evaluating RESAs’ four additional legislative charges.

State law, according to the audit, says RESAs’ technical assistance and professional development functions are their most important responsibilities, yet those purposes only represented 18 percent of RESAs’ fiscal year 2014-15 expenditures. The audit also concluded that a quarter of RESAs’ expenses on average that year didn’t “serve county school systems,” but that 25 percent includes education-related activities like adult education and workforce development.

“From our standpoint, the review was not conducted utilizing typical audit protocol,” Zervos wrote. “We have significant concerns that sweeping conclusions were reached regarding professional development and technical assistance without actual assessment of work conducted at any RESA.”

Sylvia said he didn’t recall any major changes being made to the audit in response to RESAs’ objections.

State Board of Education President Mike Green, whose agency oversees RESAs statewide, told lawmakers the board would present its response to the audit next month.

“RESAs are an extremely important part of our education ecosystem,” Green did say in his brief remarks to lawmakers.

~~  Ryan Quinn - Gazette-Mail ~~

12.07.2016 EducationFeaturesG-ICYMI™NewsWest Virginia

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G-ICYMI™: State-Owned Vehicles

The Free Press WV
The Free Press WV

Audit Eyes State-Owned Vehicles Amid Calls To Slash WV Fleet

Does West Virginia really need 7,700 government-owned vehicles?

A legislative audit is underway to try to answer that question.

West Virginia has more state vehicles per-capita than any of 15 Southern states, according to new data from the Southern Legislative Conference. West Virginia also has the second-largest state vehicle fleet based on the number of government employees.

There’s one state vehicle in the Mountain State for every five government workers.

“As you can see from the actual numbers, we have way more vehicles than any other state, as a percentage of population,” said Delegate Gary Howell, R-Mineral. “That’s a waste of money, a waste of taxpayer money.”

A comparison with North Carolina is striking. West Virginia and North Carolina keep about the same number of state vehicles, but North Carolina has five times the population and five times the number of government workers.

“We had always heard we had a huge number, compared to the other states,” said Howell, chairman of the House Government Organization Committee. “It’s incredible.”

The House committee already has sent questions and requested documents from the state Fleet Management Office.

In response, the office reported the number of state-owned vehicles by agency.

The Department of Transportation has 2,536 of the vehicles — the most of any state agency. The Department of Military Affairs and Public Safety, which includes the West Virginia State Police, has 1,692 government vehicles, followed by public colleges and universities, with 998, and the Department of Commerce, with 965 vehicles.

Light-duty trucks are the most popular type of vehicle in the West Virginia fleet. SUVs and cars rank closely behind. The fleet also includes 36 buses and two recreational vehicles.

The Ford brand dominates among government vehicles in West Virginia, with Fiat and General Motors the next-closest competitors.

A handful of vehicles in the state fleet stand out:

  • Two Jaguar Land Rover SUVs, housed at Southern West Virginia Community and Technical College. Officials there have told legislative staffers that the pricey SUVs are used for mine rescue operations, Howell said.

  • West Virginia University owns a 2012 Fisker Karma, a luxury sports sedan with a base price of more than $100,000. WVU is using the vehicle for autonomous-driving research. WVU also has a Mercedes Benz E-class sedan.

  • The Department of Military Affairs has two BMW 3 series cars and a Mercedes Benz — acquired through a civil forfeiture.

  • The Division of Motor Vehicles has a 2011 Can-Am Spyder RT, a three-wheeled motorcycle used by the Governor’s Highway Safety Program.

The Fleet Management Office has reported that state-vehicle orders are trending downward. State agencies purchased about 400 new vehicles during the past fiscal year, compared to 800 vehicles in each of the previous two years.

Howell said the number of state vehicles, which typically sport green license plates with white lettering and numbers, could be higher than 7,700.

In 2011, Fleet Management’s executive director counted 9,350 government-owned vehicles. The state has bought 3,500 vehicles since then, but Howell doesn’t know how many have been put out of service.
“The more questions we ask, trying to nail down exactly how many vehicles the state has, nobody seems to be able to actually answer that question, which is truly alarming,” Howell said. “We’ve got to get better control over it.”

Howell’s committee, which is working with the Legislative Auditor’s Office, also wants a list of state vehicles that carry “Class A” license plates — regular West Virginia tags, instead of the typical green plates.
Earlier this month, Legislative Auditor Aaron Allred wrote to state agency chiefs, asking for information about vehicles with Class A plates, and who’s driving them. Class A plates — often used by undercover state law enforcement officers — prevent the public from identifying a vehicle as state-owned. Agencies face an Aug. 1 deadline to submit the information.

This isn’t the first audit of the West Virginia government’s vehicle fleet.

In 2009, a legislative audit cited rampant misuse of state vehicles. Auditors concluded that the government spent nearly $70 million a year to operate vehicles with little oversight on how the cars, SUVs and light-duty trucks were assigned or used. Fleet record-keeping was a mess.

The audit sparked legislation that established the Fleet Management Office. The agency has six full-time employees and a $9.6 million annual budget, with about $8 million dedicated to buying new vehicles each year.

As part of the audit, lawmakers hope to find out the number of state employees assigned “take-home” vehicles for commuting. Some state workers use the vehicles almost exclusively to commute from home to work, with little or no travel for state business. Individual agencies — not the Fleet Management Office — are supposed to track vehicle assignments.

“We don’t even know if these vehicles are being underutilized or overutilized,” Howell said. “There’s no tracking system.”

~~  Eric Eyre ~~

G-ICYMI™: Judge Denies A Motion By West Virginia Department Of Education To Dismiss Lawsuit

The Free Press WV
The Free Press WV

Education official fired over prior Virginia job can move forward with lawsuit, judge says

A former executive director of instructional technology at the West Virginia Department of Education who was fired after three days on the job will be allowed to move forward with her lawsuit against the state school board, a judge ruled Tuesday.

Tammy McGraw was fired in 2014 after state schools Superintendent Michael Martirano received an anonymous letter that alleged she misused state funds and falsified travel records while working at a similar post at the Virginia Department of Education. She filed a lawsuit last year to try to get her job back.

On Tuesday, Kanawha Circuit Judge Carrie Webster denied a motion by the West Virginia Department of Education to dismiss McGraw’s lawsuit.

Webster, instead, said that McGraw should be allowed to further develop her case.

McGraw also is suing the Virginia Department of Education and Virginia resident Lan Neugent, the person she thinks sent the anonymous letter to Martirano.

The lawsuit claims McGraw was fired over the anonymous letter, which she says contained false information. She also alleges she was never given the opportunity to dispute the information contained in the letter before she was fired.

According to her lawsuit, a Freedom of Information Act request revealed multiple communications between education officials in Virginia and West Virginia in which information about McGraw was exchanged. Emails also show communications between education officials from both states and reporters with the Charleston Gazette and the Richmond Times, McGraw’s complaint states.

McGraw is suing over wrongful termination and “injury to reputation and good name resulting from defamation,” according to her lawsuit.

After an investigation, the Virginia Office of State Inspector General cited McGraw, a former Virginia education department administrator, for awarding $1.9 million in contracts to companies without soliciting bids.

The investigation found that she received an oil painting from a Massachusetts company after awarding the firm an $850,000 no-bid contract and used state funds to buy a $3,120 digital camera that she kept for herself at home.

An attorney for McGraw, John Wooton, previously said that his client didn’t violate Virginia purchasing laws — as the report concluded — because she didn’t award any contracts and didn’t have the authority to do so. Wooton called the investigation report “incomplete and inadequate.”

~~  Kate White - Gazette-Mail ~~

G-ICYMI™: WV agencies: Hypothetical Budget Cut Could Force Layoffs, Closures

The Free Press WV
The Free Press WV

Another round of state budget cuts would force West Virginia agencies to lay off hundreds of employees, and force closure of state parks and recreational areas, college branch campuses, correctional facilities, State Police detachments and a state hospital.

That’s according to responses from state agencies to a request from House Finance Chairman Eric Nelson, R-Kanawha, to outline how they would absorb a hypothetical 6.5 percent additional cut in their 2016-17 budgets.

Nelson said Thursday that, depending on the agency, the cuts range from modest to draconian.

“In most cases, these cuts suggest the elimination of state personnel and other significant adverse impacts to agencies, programs and services rendered to the public,” he said.

Nelson said he considers the agency reports to be a starting point for discussions on any potential additional cuts in the 2016-17 state budget, as legislators look for ways to close a $460 million deficit in the new budget.

“There will be a lot of eyes on these for the next few days,” he said of the reports.

A sampling of potential cuts:

• Layoffs of 166 full-time employees at five state hospitals, as well as the closure of Welch Community Hospital.

Department of Health and Human Resources Secretary Karen Bowling said that would require “reducing the number of patients served in these facilities to ensure compliance with regulations and accreditation standards,” resulting in possible relocation of patients and the potential to be out of compliance with staffing requirements under the Hartley decision.

Other layoffs, the DHHR said, would include 14 positions at the Bureau of Public Health and elimination of six substance-abuse recovery coaches.

• A $71.5 million cut in State Aid to Schools, which would push 14 county school systems into deficits and require a yet-to-be-determined reduction in staffs and operations.

• Elimination of 350 positions at four-year colleges and universities. Cuts in programs and services also would be necessary, along with funding reductions for Promise scholarships and higher education grants.

Also likely: new tuition and fees increases of up to 10 percent at most institutions.

“I am gravely concerned about the potential for such a deep cut, on top of the existing 4 percent reduction, for which we have prepared,” Higher Education Policy Commission Chancellor Paul Hill said in his letter to the Finance Committee. “I am acutely concerned about our state’s continued ability to provide access to an affordable postsecondary education for our citizens.”

• Closure of branch campuses at four community colleges, including Blue Ridge CTC’s Morgan County Center and the Northern Advanced Technology Center.

Additionally, high-tech programs in energy and power would be eliminated because of high costs, officials said.

Without specifying numbers of layoffs, CTC Chancellor Sarah Armstrong Tucker advised, “Program elimination comes hand-in-hand with layoffs and position eliminations. The reduction of force will not only contribute to an increase in the state’s unemployment but will also result in critical duties, central to the mission of the colleges, going unfulfilled.”

• Layoffs of 87 state troopers, along with five forensic analysts, two evidence technicians and three support staff from the State Police forensic laboratory. Additionally, State Police detachments in Hundred, Grafton, Berkeley Springs, Parsons, Grantsville, St. Mary’s, Elizabeth and Quincy would be closed.

The State Police also would cancel cadet training classes indefinitely.

• Layoffs of 14 full-time and 26 seasonal Parks and Recreation employees in the Division of Natural Resources.

That would require closing — or operating unstaffed — the Greenbrier River Trail, North Bend Rail Trail, Prickett’s Fort, Droop Mountain and Beartown, Cathedral, Cabwaylingo, and Tu-Endie-Wei state parks, as well as the Panther Wildlife Management Area.

• Closure of state Tax Department field offices in Huntington, Logan, Princeton, Morgantown, Wheeling, Beckley and Parkersburg, resulting in layoffs of 32 full-time employees.

• Closure of the McDowell County Correctional Center, Stevens Correctional Center and the Ronald C. Mulholland Juvenile Center, with “many layoffs” indicated, but without specific numbers.

• Layoffs and program cancellations for West Virginia Public Broadcasting, along with the likely shutting down of one or two broadcast translators that relay television signals to remote parts of the state.

• Attorney General Patrick Morrisey said he would have to reduce staff, adding, “I fear our work to fight President Obama’s illegal Clean Power Plan and onerous Waters of the U.S. rule will be compromised. We do not get reimbursed by any state agency for that work.”

~~  Phil Kabler - Gazette-Mail ~~

G-ICYMI™: Same-Sex Couple Gets License, Condemnation in Gilmer County

The Free Press WV
The Free Press WV

Samantha Brookover stood crying in the Gilmer County courthouse last week, humiliated on what was meant to be a celebratory occasion.

Brookover and her partner, Amanda Abramovich, wanted a marriage license. They got one—along with an earful from a deputy clerk in the office, who told them that their relationship was wrong and that God would judge them.

Brookover and Abramovich had expected maybe an eye roll, or some sign of disgust. They said they weren’t anticipating they would be told they were “an abomination.”

“It just takes one person to remind you how closed-minded our world is,” Brookover said.

Debbie Allen, the deputy clerk who processed their marriage license, and another deputy clerk who was there, Angela Moore, disputed some of the allegations from the couple and Brookover’s mother, Jill Goff, who was also there. They disagree on how loud Allen was, and whether the word “abomination” was used, although Moore said she couldn’t hear everything.

“I was working on what I was supposed to be doing and honestly I didn’t care to make eye contact with them,” Moore said.

The clerks don’t dispute that Allen told the couple was they were doing was wrong, and that they would be judged. But they also stressed that they did not view the statement as an “attack.”

“We did not attack them,” Allen said. “We did not yell at them. We were not aggressive with them. I felt I talked nicely to them.”

Brookover and Abramovich say that Allen huffed, took their driver’s licenses, made copies, slammed down the copies, then for two to three minutes, yelled that what they were doing was wrong, in her eyes and in God’s eyes, and that no one in Gilmer County would ever marry them.

The couple had brought family members. They had the camera ready. It was supposed to be a happy day.

Instead, in Brookover’s words, they were “flabbergasted and hurt and angry like you wouldn’t believe.”

Allen says she briefly and calmly told the couple what they were doing was wrong and that God would judge them, then continued assisting them as she would other couples.

“I just told them my opinion,” she said. “I just felt led to do that. I believe God was standing with me and that’s just my religious belief.”

Asked whether her words could possibly have been perceived as an attack to someone of another sexual orientation, who has been belittled because of it, Allen said, “Oh, I’m sure.”

She wouldn’t say how she would treat any future same-sex couples that arrive at the clerk’s office or whether she would attempt to use the West Virginia Religious Freedom Restoration Act, if it passes in the Legislature, to argue she shouldn’t have to give marriage licenses to same-sex couples. The bill, House Bill 4012, could allow people to argue in court that civil rights laws don’t apply to them because of their religious beliefs.

Goff had a phone conversation with Gilmer County Clerk Jean Butcher about the incident. Butcher said she told Goff that her religious beliefs were similar to Moore’s.

“They were issued the license and that was the main thing,” Butcher told the Gazette-Mail.

Abramovich and Brookover had already held a commitment ceremony, but they wanted to get health insurance together, and had to be married to do that.

While they obtained the license, they still feel that Allen didn’t properly perform her job.

“Someone at McDonald’s can’t refuse to give someone a cheeseburger because they’re a heart attack risk,” Abramovich said. “You’ve got to do your job. You can’t just scream at people.”

It wasn’t the first time the women were judged for their sexual orientations. They grew up in rural West Virginia. They went to high school together, but didn’t tell anyone that they were a couple until after graduation, for fear of how friends would respond. Abramovich said she was used to her stepfather being “a little hateful.”

“But to have a complete stranger — someone that doesn’t know me — scream like that, it really cut down to the bone,” she said.

Others, like Goff, have been accepting, although she said she did tell Brookover she felt sad when her daughter came out.

“She took that as I was ashamed,” Goff said. “I told her that it was not that. I love her with all my heart no matter what she does… What I said to her was I hate the way people are going to treat you. That makes me sad because for the rest of your life, you’re going to have to pay a price for this.”

~~  Erin Beck - Gazette-Mail ~~

G-ICYMI™: Ritchie Lawmaker Pushing ‘Forced Pooling’ No Stranger To Gas Industry

The Free Press WV

As the West Virginia Legislature prepares to take up the issue of forced pooling once again, the lawmaker at the center of that gas leasing legislation is expected to have at least six new gas wells drilled on his property.

Delegate Woody Ireland, R-Ritchie, has never been shy about sharing his experience as a land and mineral owner. In public meetings and interviews, the chairman of the House Energy Committee has often described himself as a cattle farmer who knows first hand what it’s like to negotiate with gas companies.

Now, as Ireland hopes to wrangle the controversial gas leasing law through the Legislature, public records show that Antero Resources, one of the state’s largest gas companies, intends to drill at least six new Marcellus gas wells on the edge of Ireland’s farm, adding to one existing horizontal well that was drilled through part of his minerals and completed in 2014.

The newly permitted gas wells don’t mean Ireland will benefit from the forced pooling law, which would require holdout mineral owners to sign a lease if 80 percent of the neighboring owners have already agreed to drill. All of his neighboring mineral owners have already signed with Antero.

“Whether this bill goes through or not, it’s not going to have a financial impact on me,” said Ireland, who filed the bill on Friday.

But the new wells would mean that Ireland can expect to receive additional royalty checks from Antero, a company involved in the pooling debate, once the wells are completed. Depending on gas prices, how much of Ireland’s acreage is included in each well and his agreed-upon royalty rate, Ireland could make tens of thousands or hundreds of thousands of dollars from the wells in a year.

If Antero drills the horizontal wells on his property, Ireland would own a significant share of the royalty profits from four of the wells that would run southeast through a large part of his mineral holdings.

Public records show that Ireland’s share of production from the well that was finished in 2014 equals roughly 1 cent for every dollar of gas produced from the well.

In six months in 2014, that well — the Ireland 1H — produced around 1.3 billion cubic feet of gas, according to state production data. There is no average price available for what producers were receiving for gas during those months.

Al Schopp, Antero’s regional senior vice president, said he couldn’t comment on Ireland’s leases or the newly permitted wells.

“Unfortunately, we are unable to discuss any particular wells, royalty owners, owner royalties per well or any details about specific wells,” Schopp said. “As a company, we have made it a policy that we don’t make any comment on our operations of any wells.”

The wells planned for Ireland’s property, which have been largely permitted by the state Department of Environmental Protection in the past year, illustrate Ireland’s direct participation in the development of the state’s gas resources and highlights his intimate knowledge of the industry.

Since 2011, Ireland’s financial disclosure reports with the state Ethics Commission show that at least 20 percent of his income has come from oil and gas exploration and development, including previous leases with Key Oil and the newer gas leases that Ireland signed with Antero in 2012. According to the secretary of state’s website, Ireland has not filed for reelection in 2016.

The bill Ireland is sponsoring for the second year in a row is meant to ensure that no mineral owner is stranded from a gas well, unable to profit from their property — like he stands to — just because a small minority of owners refuses to sign a lease.

At a time when the West Virginia state government is struggling with a significant budget shortfall, Ireland said the pooling bill would ensure that the state doesn’t waste valuable gas minerals and the severance taxes they can provide.

West Virginia is going to pay its bills from severance taxes on energy production, Ireland said, not from whitewater rafting.

“My focus in this thing is to try to do what’s right for all West Virginians,” he said.

Ireland said his mineral and land ownership is no different than many property owners in West Virginia.

Most of the gas under his farm is partially owned by other people, he said. Many of the mineral tracts in his area of the state have older conventional gas wells drilled through them already. And almost all of the minerals near his farm, including much of his own, have a confusing history of ownership that makes it more difficult for gas companies to lease enough mineral acreage to drill.

The lease that Ireland signed with Antero in 2012 also incorporates many of the same protections that he is proposing for unwilling property owners in his bill, including legal clauses requiring companies to negotiate for surface rights, banning deductions in royalty payments to cover “post production costs” and mandating unused acreage to be returned to the mineral owner.

People who took part in the stakeholder meetings that helped develop that legislation say Ireland’s lease terms are proof of the quality of the bill. Those stakeholders have publicly celebrated Ireland as the great mediator between the gas companies and the participating mineral owner’s associations.

“The fact that he has those in his own lease shows how important they are, especially the deductions,” said Thomas Huber, the vice president of the West Virginia Royalty Owners Association. “He definitely has our confidence. He has prioritized what real people go through in a lease negotiation.”

“He didn’t get any type of sweetheart deals,” he added. “They are good deals, but they are not special.”

The one detail where Ireland’s lease diverges from the bill is his royalty rate — the percentage of gas profits owed to participating mineral owners.

The lease that Ireland signed guarantees him an 18 percent share of every cubic foot of gas pulled from his minerals. The pooling bill would provide a minimum royalty rate of 12.5 percent for those who are forced in.

His 18 percent rate, Ireland said, was the result of negotiations with Antero, in which he actually gave up a higher royalty in order to get surface protections for his farm. “It all depends on how much leverage you have in any negotiation,” he said, adding that the size of his acreage gave him more pull with the company.

Tim Greene, a former DEP official who now operates his own consulting firm, Land and Mineral Management of Appalachia, said that is usually how negotiations work. Larger mineral owners hold more sway and smaller owners have less power.

Greene said he understands the need for pooling in West Virginia, but he said it will be the small mineral owners, not the people with hundreds of acres, who will be most strongly affected the pooling legislation.

“They are the ones most affected by this bill,” Greene said. “Mr. Ireland had the benefit of having leverage.”

Ireland said the bill clearly gives the unwilling property owners the opportunity to petition the Oil and Gas Conservation Commission, the state agency that handles pooling, in order to get a better royalty rate. He also believes the bill will prompt gas companies to settle with many holdout mineral owners before coming to the commission.

“What we have tried to do is instill upfront negotiations between mineral owners and the companies,” he said. “Going to the Oil and Gas Conservation Commission should be the last resort.”

Not everyone in the Legislature is satisfied with that setup, however.

The state’s Democratic party has come out solidly against the legislation this session, announcing their opposition to the bill in a press release. Those Democratic lawmakers, some of which had introduced similar legislation prior to 2015, helped kill the bill last session in a last-minute tie.

But it’s not just the other party that Ireland will have to convince. Several Republicans that believe in a more libertarian form of conservatism are also opposing the bill for the second year in a row.

“It’s a mammoth violation of private property,” said Pat McGeehan, R-Hancock. “It’s governmental price fixing and central planning. It completely removes free negotiation between the landowner and the gas companies.”

McGeehan, the chair of the House Liberty Caucus, can’t understand how some Republicans can vote to repeal the state’s prevailing wage for public construction projects but support a bill that allows a government agency to decide lease terms between mineral owners and gas drillers.

“There is a lack of vision and consistency in the Republican leadership. I just think it’s kind of ironic,” McGeehan said. “I am not going to question [Ireland’s] motivations, but in some respects, the legislators that are pushing this bill have become obsessed with getting it passed in any size, shape or form.”

Ireland, who has revised the bill over the past year, disagrees.

“Some people like to see the world as black and white,” Ireland said, “but people that have seen the sun and moon up at the same time know it’s not that simple.”

Ireland has tried to get as many people’s thoughts on the table as possible, he said, and that is what the bill currently represents.

“The world is one of compromise,” he said.

~~  Andrew Brown - Gazette-Mail ~~

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