By Ken Bustin
All three county Commissioners were present when President Gene McConnell called the March 1st Pendleton County Commission meeting to order with some sharp raps on the tabletop with his knuckles.
“I’m going to have to invest in a gavel,” he quipped with a shake of his head, adding, “My hand is getting tired of this.”
The minutes of the previous regular session of the Commission on February 15, together with those for the special budget session February 23, were unanimously approved without discussion.
When McConnell called for a maintenance report, he came up dry, as Karen Pitsenbarger, county administrator, replied that there was nothing to report since the previous meeting.
He fared better with the 911 report, as 911 Director Diana Mitchell reported that the application period for 911 dispatcher positions had passed, and that three applications had been received and were being evaluated.
Emergency Management Services Coordinator Rick Gillespie reported that the policy manual, under revision for the past several months, had been finalized and was “in the book and out there.” It took effect that day, March 1st.
McConnell remarked that there was a bill before the West Virginia Legislature (HB4282) regarding next generation 911 systems (NG911), which would require 911 systems to be able to handle Geographic Information System (GIS) data, and inquired if the new system which had just been approved would be compatible? Gillespie responded that the new system would put the county on track to be able to accommodate NG911 improvements.
Next, McConnell called on Pendleton County Economic Development Authority Executive Director, Laura Brown, for an update on broadband activities. Brown said that there had been no announcement of approval of any of the grant applications yet received, but that she believed that awards of additional grants would be announced prior to the end of the legislative session on March 12, and hoped the Pendleton County Line Extension Advancement and Development (LEAD) grant would be among them.
She said they are still receiving questions on the West Virginia grant applications, and that Lingo Networks, the county’s ISP partner for the projects, was responding. McConnell lamented that “…the state sometimes asks the same questions over and over again in different ways…”
“It’s Groundhog Day,” retorted Brown, referring to the well-known movie in which the lead character gets trapped in a repeating cycle.
McConnell agreed, but observed that those acting on the grant applications were doubtlessly being very careful, as the federal guidelines were strict, and they were “trying to stay between the lines.”
“I guess we need to cut them a little slack, because it’s new to them, too,” he concluded.
The Emergency Connectivity Fund (ECF) grant application, made by a consortium of the Pendleton County Schools and the Pendleton County Library, was still awaiting approval, Brown said, but added that deadline for the completion of construction of any projects approved thereunder, has been extended for one year, to June 30, 2023, in deference to the delays in evaluating and approving grant applications. Previously, all construction work was to be completed by June 30, 2022, which raised concern that contractors would not be able to finish on time.
Steptoe & Johnson has been retained as the attorney for the broadband projects, Brown reported, adding that the contract with Thrasher Engineering is being worked on and, once approved, the firm will begin the feasibility study.
Together with Pendleton County Chamber of Commerce Executive Director, Ciara Lambert, Brown discussed with the Commission the Mon Forest Towns (MFT) program conducted by the US Forest Service. Franklin is a member of MFT, and Lambert is the representative for Franklin. They proposed requesting the forest service to have Seneca Rocks added as a Mon Forest Town. Brown said she would serve as the representative for Seneca Rocks. A letter of support was needed from the Commission.
Durbin had also recently applied to be a Mon Forest Town, Brown said, and would be up for consideration, as well. But she said they intended to “hit them hard [at their meeting] on April 6th, with letters of support,” and added with a grin to a round of chuckles from the room, “And, if they say no, they’ll be held hostage in Pendleton County – we won’t let them out.”
After brief discussion, commissioner Carole Hartman moved that the Commission provide such a letter of support. It was seconded and passed with all in favor.
Brown and Lambert also asked the Commission to consider forming a planning commission, with an eye toward developing a strategic plan for the county.
Noting that there had been a planning commission a few years ago, McConnell suggested that they locate and review the old plan, saying, “I’ll bet a lot of that information is applicable today. Let’s not re-invent the wheel.”
In the end, the matter was tabled again until the next meeting, with Brown and Lambert promising to review the previous plan in the interim.
Turning attention to an update on the courthouse annex project, McConnell reported that Omni Associates, the architects for the project, had recently toured the Pendleton County Board of Education central office, across the street from the courthouse. With the acquisition of the Lovegrove Building on Main Street and the impending relocation of the board of education to that facility later this year, their current building will become available, offering a possible alternative to new construction for the proposed annex. McConnell said that the examination of that building by the architects was to determine if remodeling that facility could be accomplished at less cost than entirely new construction. “I feel we owe it to the taxpayers of the county to explore that alternative,” he said.
Pendleton County’s share in the $265 million opioid settlement would be around $178,000, McConnell reported. Hartman observed that, though the distribution of these funds would be in April, the payout will take up to 18 years to complete. Though they can’t be used to reimburse prior expenditures, these funds may be able to be used towards future jail bills. A vote was needed to authorize the attorneys to accept the settlement on behalf of Pendleton County, so commissioner Carl Hevener moved that the Commission sign a West Virginia First Memorandum of Understanding accepting the settlement terms. Put to a vote, it passed unanimously.
Despite some board appointments being made at earlier meetings, there were some which were yet to be made, specifically to the Farmland Protection Board. Gary Swecker was re-appointed, and Lois Carr and Amy Batson were new appointments. After discussion, it was decided to change the length of the terms so that all expired on the same date, December 31. On a motion by Hartman, the three were appointed to four-year terms. Amber Nesselrodt had previously been appointed to the fourth slot at an earlier meeting.
The annual memorandum of agreement with the West Virginia University (WVU) Cooperative Extension Service was signed by the Commission.
The sheriff’s office presented a list of several outstanding checks, some dating as far back as 2016, which had never been cashed, and it was being requested that the Commission approve their cancellation. The Commission discussed with Morgan Basagic, chief tax deputy, the need to review outstanding checks more frequently.
McConnell said he felt, even at this late date, an attempt should be made to contact some of the payees, to be sure that the checks had actually been received, and to learn if there was any reason they had not been cashed? “My concern is that the person got the check,” he said, adding, “If they got the check and chose not to cash it, we don’t care.”
Hartman asked if checks which were five years old or more needed to be turned over to the West Virginia Unclaimed Property office? Further discussion was tabled until the next meeting so Basagic could contact the unclaimed property division for additional information on how to handle the older outstanding checks.
By unanimous votes, the Commission approved fiduciary appointments and estate settlements. There were no exonerations to be approved.
As the Commissioners reviewed the bills presented for payment, McConnell asked if there was any other business to come before the Commission? Bruce Minor, Pendleton County Emergency Services director, informed the Commission that he was sending a revised version of the county’s Flood Plain Ordinance to the state using their template. He also said that the county’s mitigation plan was last updated in 2013. He was told at a Local Emergency Planning Committee (LEPC) training session that adding a chapter on the emergency services plan would be sufficient for the update. Minor said that once the state approves the submission, he will present it to the Commission for their official approval.
He said that the local LEPC group is planning on getting active again after COVID. They have scheduled a meeting for March 10 and that various training exercises are also being planned again.
Commissioner Hevener said he had been contacted by the West Virginia Conservation Agency regarding the straight-line winds event in Brandywine in July 2021. A meeting is scheduled for March 24.
Minor and Gillespie reported that they had attended a meeting last week with the National Forest personnel and representatives from three other counties to discuss the additional load and stress on the 911 systems from stranded tourists. They also talked about the interoperability between the National Forest personnel and county personnel during forest fires on National Forest land. The radio equipment in the federal vehicles cannot communicate with the local personnel, so Gillespie suggested that Pendleton County provide a radio set for one of the federal vehicles, with the hope that the other counties would also do this.
Fire department personnel had recently been given a tour of the Columbia Gas compressor station in Seneca Rocks, though the purpose was mostly informational rather than a training session, as the crews of the gas company had been clear that they would handle any emergencies with their own personnel, and that the best thing local firefighters could do in such a situation would be to “stay out of the way.”
An upcoming training session for emergency personnel would give instruction on how to rescue people trapped on lifts at the ski area, in the event of an extended power failure or other emergency.
The Commission proceeded to work on the fiscal year 2023 budget as its final order of business before adjournment.
The next regular meeting of the Pendleton County Commission is scheduled for Tuesday, March 15, at 9 a.m. in the Commission office at the courthouse.