By Ken Bustin
The Pendleton County Commissioners made short work of their agenda at the March 15 meeting.
Commissioners Gene McConnell and Carl Hevener were present in person, while Commissioner Carole Hartman was joining the session by telephone, when President McConnell called the assembly to order at 9 a.m.
The minutes of the previous meeting were quickly reviewed and approved unanimously.
The maintenance report was first up on the agenda, but County Administrator Karen Pitsenbarger said there was nothing new to report.
911 Center Director Diana Mitchell reported to the commissioners that the installation of new lighting had been accomplished, and “really enhances the work environment,” and that the staff was all very pleased.
In response to a question about the progress being made on hiring new dispatchers, she said that three prospective candidates had taken the test for the position, and that they would now proceed to conduct personal interviews.
Emergency Management Services Coordinator Rick Gillespie asked for the signatures of the commissioners on the annual review of the county emergency plan. There were no changes since last year, making the approval little more than a formality, and one which was promptly gotten.
The members of the Local Emergency Planning Committee were confirmed by the commissioners with a unanimous vote. Named to serve were Bruce Minor, chair; Brooke Hott, vice chair; Frank Wherle, secretary/treasurer; Trent Alt, Chad Bowers, Rick Gillespie, Carole Hartman, Amber Hedrick, Bob Horan, Matt Kile, Diana Mitchell, Valerie Ruddle, Rosey Santerre, Alan Thomas and Walter Hojka.
Gillespie reported to the commissioners that the recent mediation sessions between Pendleton County and Frontier Communications had been fruitful, with agreement being reached between the parties at their session on March 11. He said he felt that the settlement they had developed was a good one.
But there was a catch. A completed document had been drafted, which the mediator had signed, and which Gillespie had signed on behalf of Pendleton County. Frontier, however, had submitted the completed agreement to their lawyer, and then, though all parties had developed it together and agreed upon the completed documents, Frontier had subsequently been unwilling to sign it. The matter had been continued until March 28, he said, though that action had apparently been taken unilaterally, because he had never been made aware of it until after the fact. He noted that four additional complaints had been filed with the Public Service Commission within the previous week, all of them regarding 911-related issues.
Gillespie said that lines of communication to Frontier remained open and they were continuing to talk. He was hopeful of resolving the matter. In fact, it did subsequently resolve by week’s end. (See related story on page ___.)
Referring to the additional similar complaints, McConnell observed that he thought the Public Service Commission had a responsibility to take a stronger role than simply waiting for Complaints to be filed. He stated that their regulatory and oversight function demanded that they be pro-active in policing issues like the quality and reliability of 911 service, and should be issuing directives to the utilities on their own initiative. He said these issues affected the entire state, not just individual counties, and where there were problems, the PSC should be resolving them uniformly at a state level, not by individual agreements with each county.
“What kind of feeling did you get from the PSC?” McConnell asked Gillespie.
“I feel they could be doing more,” Gillespie replied.
“The PSC represents the state and should be directly involved,” opined McConnell.
Commission Hevener observed that a lot of time and trouble could be saved if the PSC simply established one standard.
“The Commission needs to think about spending money on legal counsel if the mediation doesn’t resolve and this needs to go before the full PSC,” Gillespie said.
“This plot’s going to thicken,” declared McConnell, announcing an intention of himself to call the PSC that afternoon.
Moving on to broadband, McConnell called upon Laura Brown, Economic Development Authority executive director, for an update, who said that there hadn’t been any definitive word on any of the pending grant applications, and that more questions had come down only the day before. But, she added, those questions seemed not to be difficult ones, and opined that they were merely “crossing their T-s and dotting their I-s.” (See related story on page _____.)
At a prior meeting, Brown and Chamber of Commerce Executive Director, Ciara Lambert, had asked the Commission to consider establishing a planning commission to develop a strategic plan for the county. The matter had been tabled to allow a copy of a previous plan, developed a few years ago, to be found and reviewed. McConnell said that the previous plan had been located and reviewed, and that much of it still seemed applicable today.
“We know what to do, now we just need to do it,” he quipped. But he added that he worried about establishing yet another commission, and wondered if it couldn’t be just as readily done by a committee of the EDA? “The EDA needs to stay in control of this,” he thought.
Brown agreed conceptually, but noted that West Virginia law required the Commission to appoint a planning commission.
“Maybe if we have to have a formal plan, we’ll have to reconsider this,” McConnell said. “But I don’t like the idea of multiple committees.”
Brown said that EDA would form a committee to begin work on it, and McConnell reminded her that they were not limited to just members of the EDA board, and should probably include representatives from other entities and the general public.
“I can just run with it,” said Brown, adding, “…if that’s OK?” McConnell agreed that it would be, noting, “I want not to do what happened at Sugar Grove a couple years ago…”
Pitsenbarger presented the commissioners with copies of a letter from Omni, the architectural firm working on the proposed annex. At the Commission’s request, they had examined the central office building of the Pendleton County Board of Education, located across the street from the courthouse. With the acquisition of the Lovegrove Building on Main Street, the board of education was planning to relocate their offices and sell their existing building. The Commission felt that an exploration of its potential acquisition and use in lieu of building a new annex was indicated, to see if the cost might be less than new construction.
The letter detailed their examination of the structure and recommendations. Without knowing the cost to acquire the building, Omni said, they could not accurately predict the total cost of the project, but outlined a number of problems which would be encountered in the conversion. The size of that building was not as large as the proposed annex, and the construction of it made it impractical to add another story to it. Another alternative would be to buy that building and demolish it and build a new structure on the site, but that was projected to be more expensive than simply building a new annex onto the existing courthouse, though it would preserve the existing parking.
In the end, the assessment seemed not to favor using the board of education building, and the commissioners took no action other than tabling the matter for further study.
Next up was a request for a road name change in Upper Tract. Mitchell told the Commission that she had reached out to the party requesting the change, and outlined the formal procedure that would be necessary to effect it, but hadn’t yet heard back, and assumed that they would now follow the proper procedure to advance the process. “They do have a good reason for wanting the name change,” she opined. No action resulted.
Hartman asked County Clerk Elise White if she had recruited enough poll workers for the upcoming primary election?
“Yes, as of right now,” replied White, adding, “That might change when I send the letters out.” The Commission approved the appointments unanimously.
An annual agreement with the Potomac Valley Conservation District was renewed with all in favor.
An agreement with GST, the firm which maintains the security and firewall on county computers, was renewed for three years by a unanimous vote.
The renewal of the liability insurance policy on the county’s storage tanks likewise obtained the support of all the commissioners and was promptly approved. The new premium will be $2,152.78, a slight increase from last year’s $1,993.00.
At a previous meeting, the Commission had addressed the cancellation of checks which had been issued but never cashed. Some of those checks dated as far back as 2016, and at the time Hartman had asked if it wasn’t required in that circumstance, to deposit the money with the Unclaimed Property Office of the state? It had been since learned that this was the proper procedure after a period of one year, so the commissioners directed that this procedure was to be followed in the future.
Meantime, White said four of the check recipients had been contacted, and it would be possible to simply re-issue those checks to complete the payment. One firm had gone out of business in the interim, and would require further research to determine what disposition should be made of those funds. The commissioners voted unanimously to approve that course of action.
The sheriff’s monthly financial report for February was received and reviewed. Since these reports are independently audited, no action or approval of the Commission is necessary.
Discussion turned to the budget for the upcoming year. It was noted that funds for an additional deputy, who would serve as a court bailiff, had been added to the sheriff’s budget. Hartman asked if adding this new officer would reduce overtime for the existing deputies, and Sheriff Chad Bowers answered that he doubted that it would have a major impact, but would perhaps reduce overtime a little.
After only minimal discussion, the proposed budget was approved by a unanimous vote.
It was noted to the commissioners that new EMS employees would be enrolled in a different health care plan, and that this might result in higher costs for the county.
There was only one fiduciary appointment, and it was unanimously approved. A second motion unanimously approved a single estate settlement. There were no exonerations which needed to be acted upon.
The Commission reviewed and approved the bills as its final act before adjournment.
The next regular meeting of the Commission is scheduled for April 4 at 9 a.m. at the Commission office in the Pendleton County Courthouse.