Laura Dean Bennett
The Pocahontas County Commission’s morning meeting began on time Tuesday with a statement of welcome from commission president Bill Beard, followed by a review and approval of minutes from the last three meetings.
Those minutes included the election canvas on November 14, the November 15 regular commission meeting and the special session which was held November 22.
Not on the day’s agenda, but present to speak to the commission, was the new director of Pocahontas County Libraries, Cree Lahti.
Lahti was recently hired as director, following the retirement of former director Vicky Terry.
After being greeted and congratulated by the commissioners, Lahti expressed her hope that the commissioners and everyone in Pocahontas County would avail themselves of the educational programs and activities offered by the libraries.
She also extended an invitation to a public meeting, tentatively scheduled for January 4 at the McClintic Library from 12:45 to 1:45 p.m. The commissioners would be given a tour, explanation of services and an opportunity to sit in on that day’s library program with the first grade class from Marlinton Elementary School.
Mike O’Brien, director of Pocahontas County Emergency Management, was on the agenda, and was there to discuss the possible renewal of the contract between the county and the Nixle Emergency Notification System.
“The county’s contract with Nixle doesn’t need to be renewed until February first of 2017, but the company has asked us for a letter of intent to renew,” O’Brien stated.
He went on to report that Pocahontas County currently has 638 citizens signed up to receive emergency text alerts, 586 by email and 208 by telephone.
“The Nixle service costs the county $5,150 annually,” O’Brien said. “I know that sounds expensive, but this is a valuable service.
“They tried to raise the price for next year, but I complained and they agreed to keep it at this year’s price.”
The commissioners questioned the various prices that other West Virginia counties are paying for the Nixle service. O’Brien explained that he believes fees are calculated based on population.
There was also discussion as to the various notifications that come through the service.
“We can “reverse dial” or what I call, “force dial” the 8,738 people in our 911 telephone system data base with local emergency notifications, if necessary,” O’Brien said.
The National Weather Service alerts come through automatically with the Nixle system, which include weather advisories designated as “warnings” and “watches.”
“Our emergency notification system includes water level and town water leak alerts, road closures, power outages, school closings/late start/early dismissal notices and all emergency notices like missing people alerts,” O’Brien explained.
“Public Information Officer Heather Niday and I have been familiarizing ourselves with all the services available through Nixle, and although it is a costly system, I feel we really benefit from it.”
Commissioner David McLaughlin spoke of the importance of the Nixle System.
“Particularly in a flood-prone county such as ours, we really need this service,” he said.
O’Brien told the commission that he would do further research to ascertain how, exactly, the Nixle system was priced in various West Virginia counties and report back to them.
The Commissioners agreed that, as West Virginia still had not come up with a statewide system of emergency notifications, the Nixle system was a valuable service for the county.
Lauren Bennett, Director of Pocahontas County Division of Parks and Recreation, came before the commission with a request for help with a serious shortfall in finances in her department.
She began by saying that Parks and Rec had just finished its annual audit and the auditor had given it a “clean bill of health.”
Bennett went on to explain that, due to last year’s serious shortfall in the amount of money they received from the Hotel/Motel tax, this year and next year’s numbers are running over budget.
“We are in a tight financial situation,” Bennett said. “Without an advance from the commission on our budget or a loan from the bank, we won’t be able to meet our obligations.
“Due to last year’s unprecedented warm winter, the hotel/motel tax that was distributed by the commission to our various recipients, including Parks and Rec, was much less than anyone had anticipated.”
Bennett stressed that this is the first time in the 13 or 14 years of its existence that Parks and Rec has anticipated not being able to meet its obligations.
There followed 25 minutes of questions and discussion, during which time all three commissioners asked detailed questions of Bennett, who supplied answers from her records.
Bennett also provided copies of a Pocahontas County Parks and Recreation financial summary and revenue/expense report to the commission.
The Hotel/Motel tax revenue received by Parks and Recreation was $177, 538.43 in 2014, $184,280.98 in 2015 and only $131,722 in 2016.
2016 had originally been budgeted at $170,000.
Bennett also delivered a letter to the commission discussing and explaining the shortfall and requesting that the commission change its way of distributing funds from the hotel/motel tax.
“Currently, at the beginning of the calendar year, the commission pays out set amounts to the hospital, EMS and fire departments before releasing any of the hotel/motel tax to any other organizations set to receive money from it.,” Bennett said. “This results in Parks and Recreation, along with the other organizations, not receiving any funds from the tax until February, sometimes March – as was the case with Parks and Rec this year.”
“The Parks and Recreation board would like to recommend that the commission distribute those set amounts over the course of two or three months, so that the other recipients would receive a portion of their amounts each month.”
Commissioners agreed that it is difficult to budget for such an unusual shortfall as happened this last winter season, but they felt that making an advance from hotel/motel tax money to Parks and Recreation would not only set an unwise precedent, but might also violate state regulations.
McLaughlin said that although he hated for Parks and Rec to have to pay interest on a loan from a bank, he could see no way around it.
Bennett said that she had already approached Pendleton Community Bank regarding obtaining a line of credit from them and said that she felt that a line of credit in the amount of $30,000 would be more than sufficient to tide over Parks and Rec between now and February or March 2017, when this year’s hotel/motel tax money would be available.
The commissioners agreed that they would immediately prepare a letter of support to be sent to Pendleton Bank outlining the income that the commission annually provides through the hotel/motel tax to Parks and Rec.
Beard acknowledged that it is difficult to work on a budget when you know your expenses but not your income.
“We just have to hope that it snows this winter,” McLaughlin said, “ or at least that it stays real cold.”
The Camp Bartow project was next on the commission’s agenda. A previously arranged conference call was made to Melisa Green of the Grants Division of the West Virginia Department of Highways.
Green recently took over as supervisor for the Camp Bartow Historic Preservation Project Grant Project.
She expressed concern about communication between Mr. Burdine of the West Virginia Land Trust and the commission as to the remaining paperwork necessary to see the project through before the grant deadline of December 31, 2016.
She asked if the commission had received copies of the survey and appraisal costs, a copy of the deed and attorney fees expected to be incurred at closing.
“This is such a worthwhile project,” Green said, “it would be a shame if all the necessary documentation were not forwarded to the Pocahontas County Commission so that you could submit all paid invoices associated with the project to us in time to meet the deadline.”
Beard replied that as closing was not scheduled until December 31 and that Mr. Burdine had stated at the last commission meeting that he would get all related documents and cancelled checks to the commission within a week of the closing, the commission is still expecting the project to meet the grant deadline.
“Perhaps an email to Mr. Burdine from the Highway Department reiterating your concerns about our meeting the deadline would be helpful,” Beard said.
She also mentioned that although the project MOU (Memo of Understanding) had stated that the land could be moved out of commission control after five years, the original grant stipulated that the commission must keep control of the 14 acres involved in the project for 15 years.
Discussion about the project included mention that this had been a long, hard-fought battle, having first been taken up by the Forest Service in 2006 and brought to the county commission in 2008.
When asked about invoices associated with signage and fencing, work which would, as it turns out, take much longer to finish than the deadline of the grant and would then require another source of reimbursement, Green assured the commission that the West Virginia Land Trust could apply for additional grant money in the future to cover those expenses.
In other business the commission:
• received a copy of a stop work order from Tim Mouse with the West Virginia State Fire Marshal’s office, which was addressed to the Cass Fire Department in regard to their intent to build a fire station at the intersection of Route 28 and Route 66.
• received a follow-up letter from Representative Evan Jenkins, acknowledging the commission’s letter of support for the Green Bank Observatory.
• approved a one year renewal of the lease with the West Virginia Division of Forestry for office and storage space in the ARC building.
The next regular meeting of the commission will be Tuesday, December 20, at 5:30 p.m.