Save the Sharp Farm of Pocahontas County
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PSD Stalls On Alternate Site Exploration

Thursday August 16, 2007
The Pocahontas Times

By Drew Tanner, Staff Writer

PSD members failed to reach an agreement Monday on how to proceed with investigating an alternate site for the regional sewage plant at Slaty Fork.

At the PSD's last meeting July 31, County Commissioner Reta Griffith presented the board with a Local Economic Development Assistance Grant application that had been forwarded to her by state Senator Walt Helmick.

The grant application was to be used for $25,000 to fund a project coordinator for six months, PSD secretary Scott Millican explained. The PSD had hired Slaty Fork resident Kermit Friel for the position in March, contingent on funding becoming available.

Friel worked previously as a contractor for the PSD to secure easements for the project.

At the July meeting, the PSD held off on acting on the grant application when it was pointed out the instructions said the grant could not be used to pay salaries, and the application itself was for the state's 2006 fiscal year.

At Monday's meeting, Millican said he had assurances from the governor's office that the grant would be approved and added that the grant's approval was at the governor's discretion.

In addition, if the grant were approved, Millican said, he had arranged for up to $100,000 in funding to evaluate the alternate site at the confluence of the Big Spring and Old Field forks of the Elk River.

Millican declined to say, however, where that money was coming from.

"I've spent a lot of hours on this," Millican said.

"I can have a check in two weeks, but we can start next week," he continued. "Next Monday we're starting on this. We can have the drilling rigs there. We can have the stream flow study started the following week. I had all this lined up six months ago, and we didn't have the money. Now we've got it. There's nothing stopping us from doing this."

Millican gave credit to those who have protested against the project, saying that officials in Charleston would not give further support to the project, given the issue of eminent domain that has been raised with the current project site on property belonging to Slaty Fork's Sharp family. Until the eminent domain issue was addressed, Millican suggested the project was politically dead in the state's capital.

Millican's counterparts on the board were skeptical of the arrangements he had made.

Both PSD president William Rexrode and treasurer Mark Smith said they wanted to see such assurances in writing.

"There's just some flags going off, and starships and rockets and flares going off," said Smith. "This is not to say that these things are not in place and you don't have your reasons for not being able to tell us, but this carrot has been dangled in front of the board before."

Smith and Rexrode also questioned whether there was even a job for Friel to do.

Millican was surprised to find that Smith had taken the same application and had project engineer Ken Moran, of Thrasher Engineering, fill it out as a request for money to evaluate the rail authority site, rather than fund the project coordinator's position.

"The site needs to be evaluated first," Smith said. "Then we can move on to something else."

Millican responded that Friel's job would be to facilitate the site evaluation on a full-time basis, and the extra $100,000 for site evaluation was not limited to any one site.

"If he doesn't get this thing moving in 60 days, then he doesn't get paid any more; it's over," Millican said. "With the moneys I have available, we can pursue any sites we want to."

"The impetus for a lot of this is that there are a lot of people who just want to scrap the regional plant all together, if you're not aware of that," Millican continued. "Any dissent in here by this board is going to just lead more down that path, and a million dollars in liability we have is going to fall on the people of Pocahontas County. I don't want to see that happen."

The million dollars Millican referred to includes the legal and engineering fees the project has incurred so far. The PSD has applied for a $2.5 million advance on the project's funding from the state's Infrastructure and Jobs Development Council to pay for those and other near-term costs.

The IJDC has committed a total of $9.5 million to the project, in the form of a 40-year, zero-percent interest loan. Estimates for the total cost of the project range from $15 million to $20 million.

Smith suggested getting the opinions of Moran and West Virginia Jobs and Development Council Executive Director W.D. Smith to get a sense of which direction to go.

"If they would get behind the salary position, then I would have no issue on it," Smith said.

"I kind of think the governor trumps W.D. Smith," responded Millican.

Millican's frustration did not end with his fellow board members.

With the Pocahontas County Commission bearing the burden of having to submit the application and disburse the money to the PSD once the grant is approved, commissioner Reta Griffith said the application caused her some concern, as well.

Having handled Local Economic Development grants before, Griffith said the county could not start spending money until it had a signed contract from the governor's office.

"The commission would be taking on a liability if the PSD started spending money on the project before a contract is received," Griffith said.

Such contracts usually take at least a month to come back from Charleston, she said..

Millican said he was told that once the application was received at the capital, the funds would become available.

Millican's motions to move forward with the the application-either his version, Smith's or both-all died for a lack of a second.

The PSD's next regular meeting is scheduled for August 28.