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No courthouse security upgrade this year

The Pocahontas County Courthouse in Marlinton.
The Pocahontas County Courthouse in Marlinton.

The Pocahontas County Commission will not hire armed guards to man the courthouse doors this year. The commission agreed that the county simply can’t afford the estimated annual expense of more than $100,000, which would cover salaries for two full-time guards and a security equipment maintenance plan.

“At the end of the day, the three of us commissioners could not justify that expense,” said Commissioner David Fleming.“

The commission held three budget work sessions during the past three weeks to prepare a budget for fiscal year 2014, which begins July 1. During the work sessions, commissioners agreed on five top priorities for funding. The five priorities, in order from top to bottom are: pay raises for deputies; a contribution to fire and rescue squads; pay raises for county employees; hiring a water resources task force coordinator and, finally, courthouse security.

The commission agreed on a $2,500 salary increase for the three lowest paid deputies, in order to reduce personnel turnover.

“We’re putting a lot of money into training deputies, then they get certified and take higher paying jobs in different counties,” said Fleming.

In response to pleas from county fire chiefs, the commission approved a one-time donation of $100,000 to the departments for fiscal year 2014. The departments also receive $50,000 from hotel occupancy tax proceeds every year.

“I passed that word along to [Bartow-Frank-Durbin Fire Chief] Buster Varner and the other fire chiefs and they were very appreciative of that,” said Fleming. “We’ll take it one year at a time but we’re glad to be able to help them with that.”

The commission addressed its third priority by approving a $100 per month raise for all county employees, except for the deputies who received a larger raise.

In order to fund a full time water resources coordinator position, the commission had to cut back in other areas.

“We had hoped to give the deputies $5,000,” said Fleming. “Instead, we gave them $2,500. So,we cut the raises we wanted to give them in half. It was a challenge to find a way to fund a full time position for the water resources task force.”

The water resources task force position had been funded primarily by federal grants. The task force was created to prepare a county water resources management plan. Morgantown environmental consulting firm Downstream Strategies completed the plan last year, which was accepted by the West Virginia Department of Environmental Protection.

Finally, the commission decided it did not have sufficient funds this year to pay an estimated $106,000 for courthouse security. Although $159,000 in grant money is available to pay for security equipment, such as surveillance cameras, a card-entry system and metal detectors, the county would have to hire at least two full-time guards and purchase a maintenance plan for the security system.

“We’re not in the fiscal position to be able to hire personnel,” said Fleming.

The commission voted 3-0 to approve a nearly $6 million budget for fiscal year 2014. The commission left the Class I levy rate unchanged at 14.17 cents per $100 of valuation. Following review by the State Auditor’s Office, a budget summary will be published in The Pocahontas Times.

Linwood resident Kermit Friel appealed to the commission to intervene in the Pocahontas Public Service District (PSD) application case to build a $27 million sewage plant near Linwood. In February, the PSD submitted a final engineering plan to the Public Service Commission for approval.

Friel said a planned force main system at the bottom of the mountain is too expensive and urged the commission to advocate for a gravity collection system. Friel described easements granted to the county by landowners for construction under a previous plan, as “contracts,” which he said the county should honor.

“We’ve kept up our end of the bargain and I think the county should keep up its end of the bargain too,” he said.

Fleming said an attorney had reviewed the easements and found no binding obligation of the county.

Commissioner Jamie Walker said an expert told him a gravity collection system could be more expensive.

“To my surprise, they say the initial cost is more expensive for gravity than it is for a pressurized line, because of the manholes requirement every 400 feet,” he said. “You have to have it where you can shine a light from one manhole to the next manhole and it’s got to be perfectly level. With pressure, you can kind of go with the ground.”

Snowshoe resident and former PSD board member Scott Millican urged the commission to advocate for a less expensive sequencing batch reactor (SBR) plant design, rather than the current membrane biological reactor (MBR) design.

“The SBR is cheaper than an MBR,” he said. “Gravity-fed would be cheaper than pressurized. “We shouldn’t be burdened with that. That’s all I’m trying to get out here. Why are we paying for something we don’t need?”

Commissioner William Beard expressed displeasure with the high cost of the proposed sewage system.

“I’ve been misled ever since I’ve been on the commission about this new engineering firm and how the project’s going to be cheaper,” he said. “All these things came out at the last that really inflated it over what they said in the beginning. I’m disappointed on that.”

Commissioners expressed concern with proposed Snowshoe-area sewage rates that are projected to be among the highest in the state. But they also expressed concern with delaying construction of a sewage plant – a process that has continued for more than 10 years. Intervention in the PSD application and rate cases was not on the agenda and the commission took no action on the item.

In other business, the commission:

– Approved a $10,000 contribution to the Pocahontas County Historical Society for replacement of the roof on the county museum.

– Accepted a petition for creation of a Snowshoe resort area district from Snowshoe Mountain President and Chief Operations Officer Frank DeBerry. See a separate article on this topic.

– Approved a $1,560 budget revision to cover a Sheriff’s Department overtime shortfall.

– Approved a $1,000 transfer from the general fund to the publication fund.

– Approved a purchasing card agreement for the Prosecuting Attorney’s Office to pay for jury meals and office supplies.

The next regular Pocahontas County Commission meeting is scheduled for Tuesday, March 1, at 8:30 a.m. The public is encouraged to attend.

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