“We can only protect people from themselves just so much…”
By Ken Bustin
The Pendleton County Commissioners rocketed through their short agenda in just one hour flat – to the minute – at their last session on February 15. Commission President Gene McConnell opened the session on the stroke of 9 a.m., and first declared the last hearing of the board of review and equalization to be open. But there were no matters to be brought before it, so it was only moments until, observing that there was no business to come before the hearing, McConnell called for a motion to close the hearing. One was forthcoming from Commissioner Carole Hartman that was quickly seconded by Commissioner Carl Hevener, and carried by unanimous vote.
With that vote recorded, McConnell declared the regular session to be called to order. All commissioners were present.
The minutes of the previous Commission meeting and previous meetings of the board of review from its February 7 and 11 hearings were approved as written without further discussion, with all in favor.
McConnell turned to county administrator Karen Pitsenbarger for a maintenance report.
“I didn’t really have anything to report until this morning,” said Pitsenbarger. She paused slightly, and then, with little sigh, said tentatively, “But now I think we’re out of fuel,” adding quickly that the fuel supplier had already been called and was en route to the courthouse to cure the problem. And sure enough, by the time the meeting adjourned and the Times reporter exited the building, the fuel truck had arrived and was parked adjacent to the building, filling the tank.
Pitsenbarger also reported that a revised bid for the courtroom renovations had been received from Eddie Simpson, in the amount of $4,240.44, and the commissioners briefly revisited the proposed project. County attorney April Mallow argued briefly in favor of extending the scope of the work to the entirety of what had been originally proposed, including upgrading the tables used by the attorneys, as well as the area used by the court recorder. But to no avail, Hartman soon moved to proceed with only the renovations to the court recorder’s section. Hevener seconded, and the votes were all in the affirmative, leaving the remainder of the work to be considered at another time.
Moving to the 911 report, McConnell turned to 911 director Diana Mitchell with an inquiry as to the progress in finding 911 dispatcher candidates. Mitchell said that five applications had gone “out the door,” but she did not yet know how many would be turned back in. Had the position been posted to social media as well as advertised in the newspaper, she was asked, and replied in the affirmative. She said they had set the end of the month as the deadline.
Emergency Services Coordinator Rick Gillespie reported to the Commissioners that he had received a firm quote from Discount Communications & Electronics, in the amount of $85,743.38, to upgrade the 911 emergency call system. These funds will come from monies received from the American Rescue Plan Act (ARPA) funds which the county received, and this project was previously approved at an earlier session of the Commissioners.
Hartman asked when the system would be finished, and Gillespie replied that the vendor had not set a start date for the project yet, observing that it might be as affected as many other things by supply chain shortages and delays.
McConnell asked if Voice Over Internet Protocol (VOIP) technology was being incorporated into the new system. “I’m glad you asked that question,” replied Gillespie, explaining that many new systems are going to VOIP technology, which uses digital Internet lines instead of dedicated Centralized Automatic Message Accounting (CAMA) trunks, which permit automatic identification of the calling number with conventional analog lines, as is prevalent in 911 centers currently, and used at the Pendleton County 911 Center.
Gillespie said that the new system can continue to use the existing CAMA trunks for now, but could be converted to VOIP technology using fiber lines at a future date, though it would require some additional upgrades to do so. In addition, with those upgrades, it would be able to support “next generation 911” (NGA911), which will allow for texting as well as voice calls, once it is available, something which the existing system cannot accommodate. He observed that this upgrade was very necessary, as the current system was already two years past its recommended service life and out of its manufacturer’s support.
McConnell called on Laura Brown, executive director of the Economic Development Authority (EDA), for an update on broadband efforts. Brown said she received word that the questions answered for the Emergency Connectivity Fund (ECF) grant application were sufficient and no additional information was needed at this time. She also heard from Lingo Networks, the Internet service provider which will build and operate some of the network expansion which is part of one of the other pending grants, that the WV Broadband Council had contacted them for additional information about their company. She said some of the information being sought included that company’s “DUNS number” – which can be used to access a company’s Dun & Bradstreet report and do financial checks and assessments of a company’s character and creditworthiness — a sign that the grant application has been found satisfactory in its technical parameters and is in the final stages of review since, as Gillespie aptly characterized it when he quipped, “You don’t need their DUNS number in order to say ‘No!’.”
Turning attention to the proposed annex to the courthouse, McConnell observed that, since the central office of the Pendleton Schools would soon be moving to their recently-acquired building on main street, their current office across the street from the courthouse building, may be available to purchase. McConnell said that, given the high cost of new construction, the Commission should study the feasibility of adapting this building as an annex in lieu of the current annex plans. But Hevener was less certain. It had been investigated before, he said, and it would need a lot of work, including installing an elevator to ensure proper compliance for handicapped access.
“We owe it to the county to take a good look,” McConnell felt, and in the end, the Commission agreed that Omni Architects should come and take a good look, to determine if it would be possible – and less expensive – to adapt and rehabilitate that building than to construct a new one.
The Farmland Protection Board has three members up for re-appointment. They are Dale Walker, representing the Soil Conservation District, Kim Ruddle, representing the EDA, and Gary Swecker. Walker and Ruddle are no longer affiliated with those organizations and will need to be replaced. Hevener stated that Lois Carr, the new representative for the Soil Conservation District and Amber Nesselrodt, representing the EDA, have already been contacted. Nesselrodt has indicated that she would be willing to be appointed, but they have not received a response from Carr or Swecker as of this date. As a result, the Commission agreed to table the appointments until the next meeting.
There was discussion on forest service emergency calls regarding tourists who are visiting the national forests and get stuck and/or lost. Gillespie said that, currently, the 911 center receives many such calls, and is frequently obligated to dispatch emergency personnel and equipment to respond to what, in most cases, is a situation which only requires a tow truck, because they are unable to accurately verify the location coordinates. If the 911 center is unable to verify the coordinates, then the call must be treated as a search and rescue call, and they have to send out the fire department, he explained. He said that often tourists from outside the area are without proper equipment – no food, water, warm clothing or emergency equipment, putting them at serious risk in cold weather.
The National Forest Service has recently posted on social media advisories that the Spruce Knob Road is not being plowed in winter, but it was observed that this is of little use to tourists. There was discussion about needing better signage, both advising people of the fact that the roads may not be plowed and to mark locations, so callers in trouble could identify their location more accurately to 911 personnel, but it was observed that it was unlikely that the National Forest Service had either inclination or funding to implement this solution, since they felt that such signage reduced the natural beauty of the areas.
It was suggested that some of these roads could be gated during the winter.
Mitchell observed that, in addition to the Spruce Knob area, the Reddish Knob area was also a source of many calls to the Pendleton 911 center. Often, she said, tourists had come into that area from the Virginia side, further compounding the problem of locating them. She praised some of the area towing companies, saying that some often go above and beyond their duty by rescuing the people even when the vehicles are so inaccessible that they cannot be retrieved until spring.
McConnell added that the problem also extended to trucks relying on GPS and map directions using the wrong roads and having to turn back. He recounted one instance where a truck had been forced to back out over a mile because there was not even a place to turn it around. He said he had contacted John Morgan at the Forest Service to schedule a meeting with the county to discuss the issue.
“But,” he concluded, “we can only protect people from themselves just so much.”
The sheriff’s financial statement for the month of January 2022 was received, reviewed and filed. Since this report is independently audited, the Commission need not formally vote to approve it.
The Commission scheduled a budget workshop meeting for February 23 at 9:00 a.m. Budget requests were tabled until that meeting.
Brown brought up the need to do a county strategic plan, which she said was one of the requirements of her contract. She explained that, according to the WV Code, a comprehensive plan is to come from the Planning Commission. At this time, the County does not have a planning commission, and some of the commissioners balked at the idea of creating one.
“This can be a can of worms,” opined Hartman, recalling prior efforts in that vein, and then asking, “Why do you believe it is necessary?”
“For planning and grant-writing purposes,” countered Brown, observing that many grant applications want to have such a plan provided as part of the backup information supporting it.
“To Carole’s point, we should look very carefully at this,” said McConnell, observing that a previous plan which had been developed “was good, but probably put in a desk drawer somewhere.” Hartman added that the previous planning commission had 15 members, which was far too large and unmanageable, she felt.
McConnell agreed. “If we had a million people [in the county], I wouldn’t support having 15 members,” he concluded.
“Why was the previous planning commission abolished?” asked Mallow.
“Because nothing was going on,” replied county clerk Elise White.
In the end, the Commission tabled the matter, pending further discussion and review.
The Commission approved one fiduciary report and three estate settlements. There were no exonerations to be acted upon.
The Commission reviewed and approved payment of the bills.
There being no other business to come before the Commission, Hevener made a motion to adjourn the meeting on the stroke of 10 a.m., exactly one hour from its call to order.
The next regular meeting of the Pendleton County Commission will be March 8 at 9 a.m. at the Commission office in the county courthouse.