The Voice of West Virginia
HUNTINGTON, W.Va. — People go about most days in Huntington and don’t even notice the flood wall which forms a barrier between much of the city and the Ohio River. The elaborate system of concrete walls combined with levies and pumping stations was built in the 1930’s. This week, again, it has paid off for those whose property was protected from the backwater of the rising Ohio River.
“We saw water outside, but on the interior side of Huntington in the areas protected in the flood plane by the flood wall we saw no impact or damage whatsoever,” said Brian Bracey, Executive Director of the Huntington Water Quality Board.
The Board operates the flood wall and made the call this week to install the first three of 34 gates into the wall which are normally openings for people, both in vehicles and on foot, to come and go. The first two gates to be installed when the water rises are the two at Harris Riverfront Park. Those were put into place, but Bracey said the actual seals were never touched by the water ahead of the crest on Wednesday.
“When the water gets to 52 feet, we start mobilizing manpower and those are the first two we install.” he said. “The water has touched the wall in some places, but not at those two seals. It was within four feet of those.”
The last time the river reached a crest this high, 54 feet, was 1997. Normal flow at the riverfront park is 32 feet. The last time flood gates were put into place on the flood wall was 2018 when the river reached just over 53 feet.
“A lot of people don’t notice the flood wall and if they do, they don’t recognize that today we have 17 pump stations in operation, pumping the drainage of the city back into the river. Those are in operation 24/7 until the water recedes.” Bracey said.
Bracey anticipated all of the water on the Ohio River at Huntington would have receded back to a normal flow by late Friday evening.
CHARLESTON, W.Va. — A Dunbar man is wanted on child neglect charges after a 5-year old boy allegedly shot himself on Sunday night.
The Charleston Police Department said the boy picked up a firearm while sitting in the backseat of a parked vehicle driven by James Douglas Brown, 48, of Dunbar. The juvenile then accessed the firearm from its location in the rear seat of the vehicle. The juvenile then fired the weapon, shooting himself in the leg, police said.
The incident occurred at 100 block of Kanawha Blvd. East. Witnesses noticed the victim exit the vehicle and was bleeding.
An investigation found that the firearm belonged to the child’s father, Brown.
As a result of the investigation, Brown has an active warrant for, Child Neglect Resulting in Injury and Persons Prohibited from Possessing Firearms.
The child was transported to CAMC Women and Children’s Hospital by a personal vehicle and is in stable condition.
Anyone with information is urged to contact the Charleston Police Department Criminal Investigation Division, 304-348-6480 or Metro Communications, 304-348-8111.
CHARLESTON, W.Va. — Students from nine colleges and universities in West Virginia will be detailing more than 70 research projects during a virtual event Friday for Undergraduate Research Day, presentations that are normally staged at the State Capitol.
This year is the 18th for that event that typically is held in-person as part of the regular session for the West Virginia Legislature.
Those watching would have the opportunity to ask questions of student presenters between 2 p.m. and 4:30 p.m.
Topics included biology, chemistry, computer science, education, health sciences, neuroscience, political science, physics and psychology.
“They cover all kinds of topics,” said Dr. Juliana Serafin, director of the division of science and research in the state Higher Education Policy Commission.
“The goal is really to showcase the work that our undergraduate students are doing in the fields of STEM (science, technology, engineering, math), health care and social sciences.”
Serafin said the online format could work out to be a benefit.
“You’re actually not going to have to travel to view it. People from across the state can just go to the website and view the presentations, so I hope that a lot of people will take advantage of that,” she said.
A total of 50 judges will score the presentations with winners selected for each category.
Next year, Serafin said the hope was Undergraduate Research Day could return to the State Capitol.
“The networking is a really important part of it for students to meet others like themselves, to meet faculty from other institutions and to also meet their legislators and be able to talk to them about what they’re working on,” she said.
“(These are ) things that are very important to the State of West Virginia.”
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Gov. Jim Justice says he has a proposal to phase out West Virginia’s personal income tax ready for legislative consideration.
“Today, March the Fourth, is a day West Virginia will remember forever and ever,” the governor said today on MetroNews’ “Talkline.”
What the governor envisions would cut personal income taxes by 60 percent starting next Jan. 1. He envisions a full phase-out perhaps within three years.
All lower income brackets less than $35,000 a year will receive a tax rebate check under the plan — although it wasn’t immediately clear how much per person. Low income and high income taxpayers will all see a net positive benefit if this plan is enacted, Justice contends.
He has been talking about an income tax phase-out since the day after the General Election, touted the big idea during his State of the State address and has had a series of town hall events to promote the concept.
But there has been nothing in writing until now. He acknowledged this morning that a bill is not yet in the hands of lawmakers but said it is undergoing some final adjustments.
“Later today we’ll have the official bill out,” he said. “We’re just doing some additional scrubbing to make sure everything is the way it’s supposed to be.”
The personal income tax brings in $2.5 billion a year for services like education and healthcare, about 43 percent of the state’s general fund.
Justice proposes some tradeoffs to make up for that cut. In an announcement today, he called that “pulling the rope.”
An outline of the governor’s plan estimates tax reductions totaling $1,035,650,000, rebates totaling $52 million — and tax increases of $902,600 million to make up for most of those breaks.
That’s still a $154,662,400 difference.
— The state consumer sales tax would increase from 6 percent to 7.9 percent. That would be on top of the sales tax that some municipalities already add on.
“Even at that rate we’re still not going to be up anywhere near the highest sales tax in the country,” state Revenue Secretary Dave Hardy said today.
The increased consumer sales tax is anticipated to bring in an additional $475 million.
— Justice described a “small, single-item luxury tax for certain high-value luxury items that only the very wealthy typically purchase.” He did not say how much that would be.
The governor’s estimate suggests that would bring in $20 million.
— Under the Governor’s proposal, professional services, such as legal and accounting services will pay the same tax rate as skilled trades like plumbers and electricians. The consumer sales tax base will be expanded to include computer hardware/software, legal services, accounting services, other professional services, selected advertising, electronic data processing, and health and fitness memberships.
Justice contended, “These professional services will see a very substantial increase in business as people on the outside begin to migrate to West Virginia.”
State officials envisioned the new 7.9 percent sales tax rate applying to those economic sectors.
Hardy says taxing those sectors would bring in about $180 million.
— Justice proposes increasing the tax on soft drinks, but didn’t say how much. Additionally, taxes on tobacco products, beer, wine, and liquor will also be changed. Cigarettes would be taxed at $2.25 a pack.
— Justice’s plan also calls for a tiering system to be put in place for natural gas, oil, and coal severance taxes so that when times are good, “these companies throw a little more in the collection plate, and when times are bad, the state steps up and lowers severance tax so that their critical jobs are protected.”
A composite of what the governor proposes has several tables showing the possible rates.
Justice contends the income tax plan — despite the tradeoffs — will result in growth for West Virginia.
“I can’t imagine being a lawmaker and saying to the public we’re going to keep you from receiving more money,” he said. “Or saying to the pubic we’re going to keep you in this rut of losing population. We really need to be united in a bipartisan play or we’re just going to play politics with the lives of West Virginians, and I think that’s a mistake.”
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The House of Delegates is describing a trimmed-down version of the intermediate court of appeals, reducing the number of districts and also cutting the estimated cost.
The issue has been promoted for years in West Virginia and was among the recommendations of a 2009 judicial reform panel established by then-Gov. Joe Manchin, a Democrat.
The state Senate’s Republican majority in recent years has championed the cause, but support in the House has been less certain. The Senate has pushed the bill several years recently, including last year.
The Senate passed the bill this year on Feb. 24, leading now to House consideration.
A major change the House already made today as the bill was being discussed in House Judiciary Committee was to trim the number of districts from two — likely north and south as originally proposed by the Senate — to just one.
The estimated cost to establish the intermediate court for 2023 was almost $7.9 million for the Senate bill. The House bill trims that to $3.6 million.
Every year after that, Senate version would be about $5.7 million. The bill under consideration by the House would have an estimated continuing cost of $2.1 million.
The House Judiciary Committee passed the bill 17-8 this morning.
Senate Bill 275 would establish an intermediate court to review civil cases between the circuit court and Supreme Court levels. It would also review issues such as workers compensation cases and final orders from family court.
The three judges on the intermediate court would receive appointments to staggered terms to fill out the court at first, with regular elections for 10-year terms after that. The judges would make $142,000 a year. Proceedings are anticipated to take place in already-available public buildings.
A public hearing this morning before the House Judiciary Committee included arguments for and against the court.
Attorney Danielle Waltz, representing the U.S. Chamber of Commerce, argued the midlevel court would provide a more stable, predictable legal climate.
“It’s time to continue to pass policies to let the world know West Virginia is open for business,” she said. “It is time to let the world know that West Virginia wants plaintiffs and defendants, individuals and businesses, to have a fair shake. It is time to let the world know that if they want to move West Virginia, they can discover a fair and predictable legal climate.”
Rebecca McPhail, president of the West Virginia Manufacturers Association, agreed.
“It’s time for West Virginia to join 41 other states who have some version of an intermediate court of appeals,” McPhail said.
Others contended the current judicial system is efficient in reviewing cases and that another level would produce delays.
“I am hearing over and over about bills that are created to fix a problem that I’m not sure exists,” said Jean Evansmore with the West Virginia Poor People’s Campaign. “Please, if it ain’t broke don’t try to fix it. Use this thing called a brain.”
ACLU West Virginia Executive Director Joseph Cohen said the organization normally would favor additional judicial review. But he said this bill is flawed because it doesn’t provide for additional review of criminal cases.
“Criminal defendants have so much more to lose than civil defendants,” he said.
Samuel White, legal services coordinator for the West Virginia Coalition Against Domestic Violence, said the midlevel court’s review of final orders in family court could produce unbearable delays, particularly for victims of domestic violence.
Rich Holtzapfel, a lawyer in Putnam County, said he has long considered himself a Republican. He said an intermediate court wouldn’t be worth the cost.
“I think the numbers just don’t justify it,” he said. “I would never hire someone to help my son mow the yard if he was doing just fine and didn’t need the help.
“Let’s not be RINOs. Let’s be responsible. Let’s not expand our government.”
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MORGANTOWN, W.Va. — Dan Stratford waited 13 months to lead his alma mater onto the soccer field but needed just four minutes to see his Mountaineers score their first goal of the season. West Virginia defeated Charlotte, 3-0 Friday night in Stratford’s first match as head coach.
“I feel like it was just what the guys needed after such a long break,” Stratford said. “I think we all forgot what the feeling was like to play a tough road game and get a really good win, and that feeling in the locker room afterwards. It definitely made for an easy ride home, for sure. That gave us a lot of confidence but also a good platform to build on.”
WVU received all the offense they needed when Tony Pineda found the back of the net in the fourth minute. Pineda later netted a second goal and Bjarne Thiesen scored late in the half. The Mountaineers won despite being outshot 16-5.
“While we didn’t create a great deal of chances, the quality of the chances we created were fantastic,” Stratford said. “We executed incredibly well in those moments. When you can put high-percentage opportunities in front of players, that’s obviously going to increase the likelihood that we can convert them.”
Four West Virginia natives are featured on Stratford’s first roster at WVU. Fairmont Senior graduate Ike Swiger was in the starting eleven for the Charlotte match and Morgantown graduate Elijah Borneo had an assist.
“I have known those guys for a long time. There is technical quality and great athleticism. We continue to work hard with both of them to help them improve in terms of what we are doing tactically.
“Sam Morgan (Charles Town) and JoJo Biafora (University H.S.) both contributed off the bench for us as well. So to have four kids from West Virginia that know what it means to represent the university and are very proud, we want them to be leaders within this group and reinforce that message to international players and out-of-state players and fully value what it means to represent this university.”
In a normal year, the six-team Mid-American Conference season consists of a five-match regular season and a conference tournament. This year, a ten-match double round robin setup sees each team host and visit all other league squads. No conference tournament is planned.
“With a smaller pool of teams within the conference, only playing five games would perhaps not be a fair reflection of who the strongest team is. So now we have ten conference games and we tend to believe that the best team will rise to the top at the end of it.”
Wrestlers head to Big 12 Championships in Tulsa
Four WVU wrestlers have been seeded for the Big 12 Championships in Tulsa, Oklahoma this weekend. Killian Cardinale is seeded fourth at 125 pounds. Ryan Sullivan is the No. 2 seed at 133. Oak Glen High School graduate Peyton Hall is the No. 2 seed at 165 pounds and defending league champion Noah Adams is the No. 3 seed at 197 pounds.
All of those wrestlers are likely ticketed for the NCAA Championships in St. Louis. Head coach Tim Flynn is hopeful other wrestlers can qualify through their performances at the Big 12 tourney.
“Hopefully it is ten,” Flynn said. “Really all of our guys have shown some promise. They all have shown signs that they can compete at a high level. If we can get them to do that this weekend, we will have more than that ‘four’ number.”
The Mountaineers went 7-3 in the dual meet season, their best mark in Flynn’s third season as head coach.
“As a team, we have certainly taken a step up. Now, I think this lets each individual know where they stand. This is not only a team sport but obviously you can go out and win an individual Big 12 championship as well.”
Adams, an Independence High School graduate, is seeded third in the Big 12 tournament. Adams saw his 39-match win streak ended last month by Wyoming’s Steven Buchanan, who is seeded No. 2.
“The kid who is the top seed (South Dakota State’s Tanner Sloan), Noah beat him in the Big 12 final last year,” Flynn said. “He is a really solid guy. We had some wars with Buchanan and with (Jake) Woodley. And the (A.J.) Ferrari kid is solid. It is a really deep weight class. Noah has ramped it up a notch. So I am hoping we will have a really great showing. And I think we will.”
Women’s soccer returns for four-match spring slate
After going 7-2 and finishing second in the Big 12 Conference season in the fall, Nikki Izzo-Brown’s 25th season will continue into the spring. The Mountaineers, ranked seventh in the national coaches poll, will play four official matches in the spring, starting at St. Joseph’s Sunday afternoon. WVU will also host Duke and play a home-and-home series with Virginia. The NCAA Tournament is scheduled to begin in mid-April.
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The Ohio River has crested and the levels at Point Pleasant and Huntington should now start to drop, relieving pressure on the Mud and Guyandotte Rivers, and other tributaries which have backed up and flooded several homes and businesses in the watershed. Governor Justice has declared a State of Emergency for 18 counties over the flooding. The Governor has also changed parameters for priority in the Covid 19 vaccinations. Mayors across the nation–and in West Virginia urge Congress to act on the most recent pandemic relief package. In Sports, WVU takes on TCU in Morgantown tonight. Those stories and more in today’s MetroNews This Morning podcast.
HUNTINGTON, W.Va. — Two West Virginia mayors are urging Congress to pass the $1.9 trillion coronavirus relief bill, with both officials warning of constraints on municipal budgets related to the pandemic and response efforts.
Huntington Mayor Steve Williams and Wheeling Mayor Glenn Elliott participated in a press call Wednesday about the American Rescue Plan Act and how local governments have handled the virus.
“We’re at a critical point right now against this pandemic, building back from the lingering effect that this health and economic crisis is going to have on our communities,” Williams said. “Our fear is that this is going to last much longer.”
The relief package comes as the United States approaches one year of responding to the pandemic. The measure includes $1,400 payments to Americans, in which the White House has agreed to phase out checks starting at $80,000 for individuals, $120,000 for heads of households, and $160,000 for joint tax filers. The proposal also dedicates funding for an additional $400 unemployment payment as well as $160 billion for coronavirus response and vaccination efforts, $10 billion for manufacturing pandemic supplies, and $130 billion for reopening schools.
Local, tribal and state governments would receive $350 billion for addressing the pandemic and its effects, including lost revenue; according to the U.S. House of Representatives Oversight and Reform Committee, West Virginia would receive nearly $1.3 billion, and the state’s municipal governments would get more than $676 million.
The West Virginia Auditor’s Office reports the state has yet to spend $660 million of federal CARES Act funding as of Tuesday.
The legislation also includes raising the federal minimum wage to $15 an hour by 2025, although the Senate Parliamentarian ruled last week keeping the provision would violate Senate rules.
The House passed the package last Saturday in a 219-212 vote; West Virginia’s representatives — David McKinley, Alex Mooney and Carol Miller — voted against the measure as Republicans voiced concerns about spending they argue is unrelated to the pandemic.
“If Congress had focused on providing targeted relief such as individual stimulus checks, funding for COVID-19 vaccine manufacturing and distribution, funding for mental health and substance abuse services, and additional funding to help safely reopen America’s schools, it would have passed with broad Republican support,” McKinley said following the vote.
Williams noted Huntington’s budget was “healthy” ahead of the pandemic. As the pandemic response continued, city officials approved a freeze on capital spending to keep essential employees and maintain city services.
“That is the greatest fear that we have is to furlough or to lay off anyone for a few weeks,” he said. “That interrupts services that we’re providing.”
Williams is a member of the United States Conference of Mayors, an organization supporting the bill. Williams cited conversations with other city leaders who have dealt with terminating employees and reducing services because of the pandemic’s financial strain.
“These are things that individuals living in their homes in the neighborhoods can’t do without,” he said. “These are every bit as essential workers as the front-line individuals in hospitals, and that’s the very reason why local governments and state governments need to receive robust funding.”
Elliott urged Congress to approve the relief bill “as swiftly as possible.”
“This should not be a partisan debate,” he said. “This should not be something where we really don’t take every step to get this done as quickly as possible because our communities are hurting.”
Wheeling is — as Elliott described — the “prototypical Rust Belt community;” the Northern Panhandle city was dealing with declining economic activity and a decreasing population prior to the pandemic, as well as a loss of resources. Elliott noted the September 2019 closure of the Ohio Valley Medical Center during the call in addition to the related health and economic effects.
“We’ve tried to do what we can within our budgetary constraints to help, but we need more assistance right now,” he said. “This is definitely not the time you want to do anything but go big.”
Sen. Shelley Moore Capito, R-W.Va., opposes the measure; she has said the next round of coronavirus relief needs to be aimed at individuals and parties most in need of financial assistance, especially because Congress approved a $900 billion relief package in late December.
“We don’t disagree on the need for continued relief and resources, but it needs to be done in a targeted way,” she said Tuesday on the Senate floor.
Capito and nine Republican colleagues pitched a $618 billion plan during a meeting last month with President Joe Biden; the GOP proposal features $1,000 relief payments, a $300 enhanced unemployment payment and no funding for local and state governments.
The Senate is scheduled to vote Thursday on proceeding with the American Rescue Plan Act. Lawmakers have cited March 13 as the deadline to pass a plan as extended unemployment benefits will expire that day if legislators do not act.
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The pandemic has impacted West Virginia’s nursing homes harder than any other sector. West Virginia AARP reports that nearly 700 of the over 2,300 deaths were long-term care residents and staff.
The West Virginia Legislature is now considering whether those nursing homes, as well as every other health care provider and business in the state, should be protected from lawsuits because of the pandemic.
The Senate has already passed SB 277. The bill provides blanket immunity for any claim against “any person, essential business, health care facility, health care provider, first responder or volunteer for loss, damage, physical injury or death arising from COVID-19, COVID-19 care, or impacted care.”
Senate Judiciary Committee Chairman Charlie Trump (R, Morgan) argued the protection is necessary. “This is a global pandemic, and it requires extraordinary measures and responses in a lot of different ways,” Trump said.
Not everyone agrees.
AARP State Director Gaylene Miller said in a letter to House of Delegates leaders that while “many facilities performed admirably under tough conditions, it is clear other facilities endangered their residents, including some that had long-term understaffing problems and lack of infection control prior to the pandemic,” Miller wrote. “Those facilities should not escape culpability for harming their residents.”
This debate is occurring across the country. Most states have adopted some form of liability protection, but they often leave an option for litigation for the most serious cases. The American Bar Association Journal reported a few months ago that courts are going to be in a difficult position.
“They will have to decide whether and how to apportion responsibility for deaths of the nation’s most medically vulnerable population among long-term care operators who were scrambling in the midst of the chaos and confusion during the worst public health emergency in the century,” ABA Journal reported.
Lawyers are already pursing COVID-19-related suits across the country. According to a litigation tracker by the law firm of Hunton Andrews Kurth, over 8,800 COVID-19-related complaints have been filed, including six in West Virginia, and there will be more to come.
Successful mass litigation could devastate elder care in this country. Each death is a personal tragedy, but not every death was the result of someone’s negligence. The novel virus raged out of control for months, health advisories shifted, personal protective gear was in short supply.
SB 277 as it came out of the Senate, with its wholesale blanket immunity, is too broad. The House needs to find some way to allow for litigation where there are instances of intentional misconduct, but not create legal problems for nursing homes and other businesses that did the best they could during an unprecedented event.
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FAIRMONT, W.Va. — It remains to be seen just how much of an impact Meredith Maier makes at Fairmont Senior.
But Maier, a transfer from Grafton, could have hardly made a better impression in her Polar Bears’ debut Tuesday against Bridgeport at the Fairmont Senior Field House.
The junior, who earned Class AA third-team all-state honors with the Bearcats last season, scored 31 points and grabbed 10 rebounds to key FSHS to an 86-59 win over Bridgeport on the opening night in girls basketball across the state.
“What she does is take a lot of the pressure off (returning all-state guard Marley Washenitz),” Polar Bears’ coach Corey Hines said. “Marley still handles it and she’ll do her thing, but she doesn’t have to do everything, because Meredith can really help us out.”
The Indians got off to a strong start and built a 12-6 lead, but the Polar Bears ended the opening quarter on an 8-0 run to go ahead.
Fairmont Senior carried that momentum over into the second period, scoring the first 11 points to up its advantage to 25-12. Maier had consecutive layups during the surge, while Washenitz, a junior, accounted for five of her 21 points to help the Polar Bears lead by 13.
But Bridgeport answered with its own 9-0 run to close the deficit to four, before another Fairmont Senior surge sent the Polar Bears into halftime with a 32-22 advantage. Maier and Washentiz combined for all but eight of their team’s points through two quarters.
The Polar Bears picked up their defensive play to start the second half, forcing three Bridgeport turnovers in the opening minute to spark an 8-0 run. When Maier accounted for the next basket on a stickback, Senior held a commanding 42-22 lead.
Maier scored eight third-quarter points, while Washenitz added seven to help the Polar Bears take a 58-37 lead into the fourth.
The Indians never got closer than 16 in the final quarter.
“I’d be concerned if the first game was perfect, because the goal is still to improve as the season goes on,” Hines said. “But we did a lot of good things and we turned it up a notch in the second half.”
Maier made four of her team’s 10 3-pointers, while Washenitz connected on three triples. Washenitz, a West Virginia University commit, also had a game-high 11 assists.
Bekah Jenkins scored 13 points in the win and all five Polar Bear starters accounted for at least five points.
“We only have 11 girls, but this group plays hard,” Hines said. “They give great effort and that’s all you can ask for.”
Bridgeport sophomore Gabby Reep poured in 27 points in defeat. The Indians had 14 second-half turnovers, while the Polar Bears had only four.
“I don’t like to see us give up that many points,” Hines said. “We have a long way to go on defense.”
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