Save the Sharp Farm of Pocahontas County
History and heritage in Slatyfork, West Virginia.

Commissioners tackle in-depth topics Tuesday

Thursday February 7, 2008
The Pocahontas Times

By Pamela Pritt, Editor

With their ranks reduced by one, county commissioners kept a busy schedule Tuesday, covering topics ranging from personnel to eminent domain to Pocahontas Memorial Hospital’s financial status.

Commission president James Carpenter was not in attendance because of a death in his family. Commissioner Reta Griffith acted as the body’s president pro tem in Carpenter’s absence.

Sheriff’s deputy to remain on paid leave

After nearly 30 minutes in executive session with Sheriff Robert Alkire, commissioners announced that a deputy sheriff charged two weeks ago with a felony involving his duty weapon will remain on paid administrative leave.

Commissioner Martin Saffer said he and Griffith had requested in executive session to suspend Deputy Sheriff Robert Alkire II’s pay until the case is concluded.

“The sheriff refused to comply with the request,” Saffer said. “The sheriff has declined to take any disciplinary action other than removal from duty.”

Under normal circumstances, discussions of an executive session are kept secret by all parties involved; however, Saffer said the sheriff was made aware that commissioners would make a public announcement at the conclusion of the closed session.

Alkire II was charged with wanton endangerment after allegedly discharging his firearm. A special prosecutor has been assigned to the case.

Griffith said she is concerned the sheriff violated his own personnel policies, which may not be a matter of public record, although Saffer said he thought they should be.

Saffer said the commission wants a full report of the investigation. Griffith said the commission’s position will be sent to the county civil service board which meets next week.

However, that board mainly sits to hear grievances from suspended deputy sheriffs, not to act as a disciplinary body unless the deputy sheriff is accused of engaging in political activity.

The sheriff did not return a telephone message left at his office Tuesday afternoon.

Governor’s letter on sewage treatment plant causes commission quarrel

With a letter from Governor Joe Manchin in hand, Saffer continued to call for Pocahontas Public Service District board members to come to the commission with an explanation of their plans for the proposed Slaty Fork Wastewater Treatment Plant.

The letter said the governor is “genuinely concerned, and (has) offered several alternative locations that are owned by the state for this project. To date, the local officials have not accepted my offer and we are unable on a state level to direct them to make these changes without their agreement.”

Saffer said he wanted to know who these “local officials” are.

“I’m not one of those people,” he said. “I’m absolutely opposed to eminent domain for this project.”

Likewise, Griffith said she had never been contacted by the governor with an offer of an alternative site for the controversial project.

Further, she said she had only heard of one alternate location, not several.

While Griffith said she’d like to meet with the governor concerning his letter, Saffer’s approach remained to force the PSD to a public appearance at a commission meeting.

“I think Mr. Michael ought to come out of hiding in Durbin,” Saffer said.

Griffith said she understood the PSD’s reticence.

“The last time they talked to us they got toasted in the Elkins Inter-Mountain,” she said.

Michael, the PSD’s attorney, has sent a letter to the commission briefly outlining the PSD’s direction.

The letter said the process of identifying a site and possibly selecting an alternate is “ongoing.” But, Michael cautioned, negotiations with property owners is “sensitive” and the PSD cannot disclose those locations. Further, Michael said, “avoiding eminent domain is a criteria.” But “any alternate site(s) must also meet the same engineering, environmental and legal criteria which have been applied to the existing site.”

“I have faith in those folks that they are trying to find an alternative site,” Griffith said. “I think they are trying to find a solution that is more palatable to the public.”

A tit-for-tat discussion between Griffith and Sharp’s Country Store owner Tom Shipley, who has led the charge against the Sharp Farm as the plant’s location, resulted in little more than “he said, she said.”

The “he” in this case is gubernatorial deputy chief of staff Joe Martin. Shipley said Martin told him he’d called Griffith with an offer of state property. Griffith said she’d never received such a call from Martin.

“There’s a misunderstanding,” Shipley acknowledged.

“Huge,” Griffith agreed.

Martin offered state property for the project in January 2006 at a meeting in State Senator Walt Helmick’s office. According to Martin then, the governor’s office was “willing to help place the plant on state-owned property if county officials asked,” but would not otherwise interfere in the process.

County commissioners did not attend that meeting, nor according to Griffith, were they invited.

Shipley said Helmick was quoted in a fly fishing magazine as being against eminent domain on the Sharp Farm.

“I’m very much in favor of personal property rights, and I am adamantly opposed to the plant being located on the Sharp Farm,” Helmick is quoted as saying in the September edition of Fly Fish America.

“Maybe he’s the local official the governor is talking about,” Griffith offered.

Saffer will write a letter to the governor asking for clarification on the offer of state property. Griffith asked to see the letter once it’s finished.

PMH income increases, still shows loss

Pocahontas Memorial Hospital shows a dramatic increase in income from October to November of last year. In fact, more than half its $4 million income in the last seven months came from the last three. Only August produced income in the $6-$800,000 range, with September’s income falling off to less than $400,000.

That said, PMH is still operating at a $200,000 loss.

However, PMH administrator Don Muhlenthaler said the financial picture looks better.

PMH paid off its $111 thousand debt to Medicare in November and the income in December does not reflect a nearly $250,000 settlement from Medicare in December, according to the report presented by Greg Curry, PMH’s financial director. The report also said PMH’s administrators have established a cash reserve account that now amounts to more than $139,000. Administrators have a goal of depositing $15,000 every two weeks into the account. In addition, Our Ambulance Service, owned by PMH, had a record number of runs in January. The hospital now owns two ambulances, thanks to another grant, he said. Thus, wait time for patients needing transport has decreased, he continued.

Curry said the hospital has reduced labor costs without decreasing services. Snowshoe is sending more of its runs to PMH, Muhlenthaler said.

Muhlenthaler said the hospital is making plans based on a “worst case scenario” and has been extremely conservative in its budgetary process.

With more than $840,000 owed to PMH by county residents, Muhlenthaler said many of them could benefit from taking part in a program that would allow the hospital to recoup some of their debt from another source.

The hospital administrator said county residents who owe PMH money could bring in tax returns to prove income and be relieved of the debt, at least to some extent. Debt relief is based on a sliding scale that compares income to the national poverty level, he said. PMH would recover the money in two years, he explained.

In other business, commissioners:

  • granted an easement without warranty for power lines along Oak Avenue in Minnehaha Springs. The buried lines will be installed by Allegheny Power Company. The project will service Allegheny Lodge Enterprise’s water plant.
  • took no action on a request from County Clerk Sandra Friel concerning hiring Andrea O’Brien. O’Brien is currently employed by Saffer, who could neither discuss nor vote on her employment at the courthouse, according to an ethics commission ruling.
  • awarded the bid for electrical repairs at Riverside Industrial Park to Valley Electric.
  • discussed courthouse security after an altercation in the Solid Waste Authority office. Commissioners discussed having a full-time law enforcement officer in the courthouse, but made no decision.
  • discussed the Community Corrections Board.
  • adopted emergency absentee voting procedures.
  • will write a letter to former Chief Deputy Craig Doss explaining his claim for lost wages at his current job should be addressed to the Greenbrier County Prosecuting Attorney. Doss was called as a witness at a hearing concerning the retrial of a Pocahontas County case that was moved to Greenbrier County.
  • allocated $25,000 to PMH, $25,000 to Emergency Medical Services and $50,000 to the Firefighters Association from 2008 Hotel/Motel Taxes.