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MetroNews This Morning 4-16-24

Today on MetroNews This Morning:

–State finances are in the process of paying out income tax refunds

–Senate Finance Chairman Eric Tarr explains the situation with the IDD wavier program

–National Guard members are winding down service in the state’s jails and prisons

–In Sports: spring football drills continue for WVU

Listen to “MetroNews This Morning 4-16-24” on Spreaker.

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Blackwater River included on America’s Most Endangered Rivers list for 2024

DAVIS, W.Va. — One of West Virginia’s best known and most scenic waterways has been included on this year’s list of America’s Most Endangered Rivers. The Blackwater River in West Virginia is number ten on the list compiled and released today by the American Rivers organization.

In their announcement, American Rivers, an environmental organization, specifically noted the plans for construction of Corridor H through through the Tucker County towns of Thomas and Davis as the chief reason for the inclusion of the waterway on the endangered list.

“The Blackwater River is threatened by the currently State-preferred (but not yet adopted) route for a major four-lane highway, known as Corridor H, that would cross all of the river’s headwater streams
with major construction activity at each. This route was designed 30 years ago, with little thought to preserving the Blackwater River’s unique cultural, historic, and environmental integrity.” wrote the organization in a press release.

Judy Rodd is the longtime Executive Director of the Friends of Blackwater. She believed it was a significant development for their push to persuade the Federal Highway Administration to adopt what is often called the “northern route” for the Thomas and Davis section.

“This is a national group looking at the problems created by the mega-highway being built in the headwaters of the Blackwater River,” said Rodd. “It’s beloved by West Virginians and is a significant part of the tourism economy.”

The West Virginia Division of Highways and local advocates for the Corridor H project have maintained the current route, which would go between the two towns, is the most economical and appropriate route. However, the Federal Highway Administration in a notice of intent earlier this year allowed for an examination of not only the preferred route, but also the northern route.

Rodd said to her organization it’s an important shift in the analysis of the plans for the highway by the federal agency.

“It divides the historic towns of Thomas and Davis, with a big four-lane which is ridiculous in this day and age when the Biden Administration is saying, ‘We don’t want to divide towns anymore and make it difficult for people to visit each other,” said Rodd.

She added the other concern is environmental, which was what attracted the attention of American Rivers.

“It cuts over top of the North Fork of the Blackwater, which is the entry way to the Blackwater (Canyon). It cuts over top of the rail-trail, over top of a water treatment system we’re installing and over top of the Loop Trail which is a new venture. Then it cuts over five major waterways which feed into the Blackwater River,” she said.

“It would be a grave mistake on the part of the West Virginia Division of Highways and Federal Highway Administration, and a major disservice to local communities, to threaten the Blackwater River and simultaneously hinder the growth of the thriving outdoor recreation economy in this area,” said Olivia Miller, program director of the West Virginia Highlands Conservancy in a press release. “To those who know and love Tucker County—the Blackwater Canyon is the heart and soul of this region. To rob present and future generations of the opportunity to fully experience these special places and reap their many benefits is a huge error in judgment.”

The West Virginia Division of Highways has long maintained the current route they are putting forward is the fastest, most economical route and deny it poses any of threats to the environment or the historical status of the region which are claimed. However, Rodd and her organization hoped the designation would change before dirt is turned on what will be one of the final stretches of Corridor H. It’s also one of the most environmentally sensitive areas of the entire longstanding project to connect Weston to I-81 in Virginia.

“A million people visit this area every year and those people are concerned their enjoyment of this area will be diminished and the people who live there are disturbed it’s going to tear up their landscape for years,” Rodd said.

“Part of this announcement is a call for people to take action and say what they think by sending those comments to the federal highway people,” she said.

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DOH public meeting set for Wednesday for new Monongahela River bridge in Morgantown

MORGANTOWN, W.Va. — The state Division of Highways will hold a public meeting regarding the proposed bridge over the Monongahela River to the Morgantown Industrial Park later this week.

Jason Foster

DOH Chief Development Engineer Jason Foster said the meeting will be Wednesday at Westwood Middle School from 5 p.m. to 8 p.m.

The preliminary location for the bridge, estimated to cost about $80 million, is to connect to U.S. 119/Grafton Road in the vicinity between Scott Avenue and the Glotfelty Tire Center. The access would intersect with Smithtown Road at grade south of the Kingdom Hall of Jehovah’s Witnesses chapel, crossing the river and connecting to Morgantown Industrial Park via Rail Street.

“We’ll be able to show the bridge location, bridge type, and spans—there will be a lot of detail at this meeting,” Foster said.

Soil borings have been done in the construction zone, and work is underway now to finalize and acquire the needed right-of-way for the project.

“The status of the project is that we are under final design; we’re acquiring right-of-way and doing all the things we need to do to get the project to final construction,” Foster said.

DOH representatives will be at the meeting who can answer a variety of questions, and there will be layouts so people can visualize the new crossing.

“They can expect one-on-one contact with folks that can explain the right-of-way acquisition process,” Foster said. “We’ll be able to explain the environmental feats we’ve documented and explain the details of the project.”

Foster said the project is in the design and development phase, with most activities taking place with designers, but the right-of-way work is ongoing within the proposed project area.

“The right-of-way acquisition is happening on the ground, but there are no ground-disturbing activities at this time other than the preliminary core borings that were done some time ago,” Foster said.

DOH officials estimated last fall that it would take 28 months to complete the bridge and have it opened to traffic. Foster said it’s a very ambitious timeline for completion.

“Construction, I would at least anticipate it would take two seasons; we would like to see it move faster than that, but I think it will take two seasons,” Foster said. “So we would be looking at sometime in ’26 or early ’27 to get it finished.”

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Wheeling Central Catholic hands Williamstown first loss, 8-6

WHEELING, W.Va. — Trailing 4-0 just six batters into the game, Wheeling Central Catholic chipped away at an early deficit to deal No. 1 Williamstown their first loss of the season, 8-6 Monday evening at the J.B. Chambers I-470 Complex.

The No. 3 Maroon Knights posted their eighth consecutive victory and defeated a top Region I rival in their first of two meetings in the span of just over a week.

“It is that big-game mentality we are trying to get used to,” said Wheeling Central Catholic head coach Todd Cover. “We are a young team. We are trying to get to the level that the Williamstown’s and the Charleston Catholic’s are at. It is fun to win one game but it is about sustaining it for the season.”

After falling behind in the first inning, Wheeling Central Catholic answered with three runs in the first and another run in the second to level the game at 4. Five of Central’s twelve hits came in the first two innings.

“I think that was the key to the game. They did that to us last year and we kind of just folded. It is a new year and a new team. I think we have a lot of good senior leadership. I think that was the difference. Coming back and getting three, getting us back in the game was key.”

Williamstown regained the lead in the top of the fifth when WVU signee Maxwell Molessa hit a solo home run and Ty Ott later scored on a wild pitch. However, one big swing of the bat from Gary Hatfield gave the Knights their first lead of the game. His three-run home run in the bottom of the fifth put Central ahead 7-6.

“When he finds the barrel, he finds the barrel and it usually goes. So it was a big hit for us to take the lead. I thought we battled all night long as far as hitting.”

Staked to an 8-6 lead, Steven Brodegard came out of the bullpen and stranded four runners on base over the final two innings, including a bases loaded situation in the seventh.

“Adrenaline helped him get through it,” Cover said.

Brayden Cover pitched five innings to earn the win for the Maroon Knights (9-1). Jenner Burge pitched five innings for the Yellowjackets (10-1) before being relieved by Parker Schramm.

Hatfield went 2-for-3 for Central with four runs batted in. Eli Tucker had three hits for the Knights while Braxton Billick and Cover each had two hits.

Carson Hill had three hits for the Yellowjackets while Molessa went 2-for-3.

These two teams will square off once again on April 22 at Williamstown.

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FAFSA mess makes it even harder for WV students to get to college

More education typically, but not always, leads to higher incomes. There is plenty of research showing that individuals with associate or bachelor degrees or higher end up with better jobs and higher pay than their counterparts with only a high school diploma.

Nationally, about 62 percent of  high school (or equivalent) graduates go on to post-secondary education. In West Virginia, that figure for 2023 is 47 percent. That is a very slight improvement over the previous year, but still well below the national average.

West Virginia students often face stiff headwinds when considering college.

We have a cultural issue. For decades, West Virginians could earn a decent—but hard—living in coal mining or manufacturing.  A strong back and solid work ethic were more important than a college degree. However, many of those jobs have dried up. The new economy, which is just getting a decent foothold in the state, requires a more advanced skill set.

West Virginia is not a wealthy state, so the cost of college is often a factor. However, many of the state’s colleges and universities are trying to become more affordable.

For example, Marshall University has started a massive fund raising campaign to help students pay for college. Marshall President Brad Smith announced the program in 2022 with the bold prediction that “In ten years, no Marshall student will graduate with student debt.”

Two-year community and technical colleges are a bargain. West Virginia has a “last-dollar-in” financial aid program, the WV Invests Grant, to cover the cost of tuition and fees for certificate or associate degrees in specific high-demand fields.

But the challenge of opening higher education doors to more West Virginians has gotten even harder because of the FAFSA mess. FAFSA stands for Free Application for Federal Student Aid. Filling out the FAFSA form is a critical step in the going-to-college process because it is the gateway to financial assistance and essential to college applications.

Starting this year, the FAFSA process changed, supposedly for the better, but the rollout by the U.S. Department of Education was botched. First, there were long delays in the launch, and that was followed by a series of glitches, including the interface between the Education Department and the IRS, which caused a problem with 30 percent of the applications.

“It’s not calculating the student aid index correctly so those 30 percent will have to be kicked back and reprocessed,” said Higher Education Policy Commission Chancellor Dr. Sarah Armstrong Tucker. “We have a big crisis on our hands.”

HEPC, along with state colleges and universities, are working overtime to try to walk students and their families through the FAFSA process. That is time consuming and bound to miss some students and their families who simply become frustrated with the process and give up.

The pandemic kept some students away from college and enrollment was just starting to climb again, albeit modestly. The state’s economy desperately needs a trained workforce. Having more West Virginians with post-secondary education is a rising tide that lifts all boats.

The FAFSA debacle could not have come at a worse time.

 

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Advocates for child care want funding for their services on special session agenda

CHARLESTON, W.Va. — Child care advocates hope a special session agenda will include funding for child care services.

Some advocates presented a petition with well over 2,100 signatures while at the governor’s office at the State Capitol Monday.

“It is encouraging Governor Jim Justice to put child care on the agenda for this special session,” said Kristy Ritz, Executive Director for the West Virginia Association for Young Children.

Ritz expects the number of signatures to double over the next few weeks leading up to a likely special session.

Funding for enrollment-based payments is expected to end in September. Ritz said providers would end up getting paid based on a child’s daily attendance. She calls that an “unsustainable model.”

“We need funding for enrollment-based payments for child care subsidies,” Ritz said.

The funding that runs out in September was something that started at the beginning of covid and was paid through ARPA funds up until last Fall.

According to Ritz, the enrollment-based change was going to cost around $44 million, but the Legislature wanted to take a tax break approach, which Ritz does not agree with.

“Tax breaks will not save child care,” said Ritz. “They probably won’t help at this point.”

Ritz compared the situation to the public school system. If a teacher only got paid based on the days that a student attends, that system would not be sustainable either.

“If they’re only paid on days that a child attends, it would fluctuate so much and be impossible to budget,” she said.

Ritz said there are a lot of child care programs across the state that may have to close classrooms or maybe their entire building because they don’t think they’ll be able to pay their staff and offer their educational services. The lack of high-quality services or services altogether could also be a turn off for companies who are pondering a move to the state.

“We have lost out on business opportunities coming into the state because they see that there’s not child care,” said Ritz.

Delegate Mike Pushkin (D-Kanawha) Monday during the Joint Standing Committee Meeting on Health (Photo/Will Price)

Kanawha County Delegate Mike Pushkin has noticed the staffing issues in child care services. During a meeting of the Joint Standing Committee on Health Monday, Pushkin said

“A lot of these services are already unavailable even if they could use them or needed them because of the staffing shortages,” he said.

Pushkin called the situation a “crisis.”

The hope is for Ritz and the West Virginia Association for Young Children that this issue will end up on the special session call by Governor Jim Justice. There are over 1,300 child care programs in the state of West Virginia that could be impacted.

“We hope that he puts his money where his mouth is and helps us with the funding.”

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Morgantown scores six in 1st, rides Wisman’s one-hitter to 8-0 win against University

MORGANTOWN, W.Va. — Morgantown sophomore Madison Wisman was hoping she could settle into her pitching outing early on in Monday’s matchup against crosstown rival University.

Thanks in large part to the Mohigans’ six-run first inning, she did just that.

Morgantown set the tone for the contest with the six-run opening frame, and the Mohigans rode Wisman’s brilliant pitching performance from that point forward in an 8-0 victory against the Class AAA No. 10 Hawks.

“The difference in us has been we start off with good energy and they keep it throughout the game,” MHS head coach Lorri Lipscomb said. “That’s kudos to the dugout and players on the bench.”

It was a flip of the script from when the two teams met back on March 19, a game the Hawks won, 8-0.

“This was a big game for us considering we lost to them the first time,” Wisman said. “Coming back and beating them by the same score means a lot for us.”

Wisman retired the side in order in the top of the first, and by the time she returned to the pitching circle in the second, she had the significant lead to work with.

That came about as a result of the Mohigans’ five hits in the first, while the home team also capitalized on several Hawk miscues.

Emily Peterson drew a one-out walk and an error enabled Liz Alsop to reach, giving Morgantown (10-5) a pair of baserunners. Micah Wilson followed with a single to bring in the first run, while an error on that play also enabled Alsop to score for a 2-0 lead.

Later in the first, Paige Rhodes connected for a bloop single to left that brought home Wilson, and Kate Larimer followed with a two-run double to left. 

“The girls believe in each other and they have that I succeed, you succeed and we’re a team together mentality,” Lipscomb said. “Not one player is going to win the game for us. They’ve picked that up and good senior leadership has helped with that.”

Beth Robinson’s run-scoring double provided the sixth and final run of that inning.

“It’s going to take a lot across a seven-inning game for them to catch up to that,” Wisman said. “My team putting me up 6-0 means a lot.”

University (9-5) picked up its defensive play from that point forward, including three catches for centerfielder Adalyn Brown in the second inning, two of which were more than routine plays.

But the Hawks, who were without injured standout Maddie Campbell, never could solve Wisman. She allowed four baserunners over the first four innings — three by way of base-on-balls and the other on the only MHS error of the matchup. UHS didn’t muster a hit until Lexi Elza’s fifth-inning single — which proved to be the Hawks’ only hit.

“You’re not replacing her and we’re trying to learn to play to without her, but one his is just not acceptable,” UHS head coach Mindy Parks said. “That pitching was not that dominant. It was a mental thing for them. We just didn’t play our game. We’ve been on a down slide and we have a tough week this week, but hoping to pick it back up.”

Still, the Mohigans squandered prime chances to add to their lead by stranding a pair of runners in the third and fourth frames.

The way Wisman was throwing, it hardly mattered. She retired the first two Hawks she faced in the fifth before Lexi Elza singled and moved into scoring position by stealing second.

Wisman never wavered and struck out Brown to end the inning. She then retired the side in order in the sixth, recording her sixth and seventh strikeouts of the evening in the process.

“For only a sophomore, she has a great mindset as a pitcher,” Lipscomb said, “and that’s good for the future.”

Morgantown then ended the game early by scoring twice in the sixth. After Anne Robinson’s bunt single, Peterson doubled to left to make it 7-0. Peterson moved to third on Alsop’s single, and after Wilson walked to load the bases, Wisman followed suit to force in the eighth and final run.

Peterson and Rhodes had two hits apiece to key the Mohigans’ 10-hit attack.

Sophia Lehosit logged 5 2/3 innings for the Hawks. She struck out four and walked four in defeat.

“Our approach at the plate wasn’t good and they sucked the life out of us at 6-0,” Parks said. “We have to get mentally tough and learn how to come back. That’s what athletes do.”

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Multi-vehicle crash leaves two dead in Raleigh County

DANIELS, W.Va. — A couple died in a multi-vehicle crash Sunday morning in Raleigh County.

West Virginia State Police said Dewey Raynes, 52, and his wife Melinda Raynes, 49 died at the scene of the crash in the 1800 Block of Ritter Drive in Daniels, West Virginia.

Three vehicles were involved in the collision. The motorists in the other two vehicles involved were not seriously injured, according to troopers.

An investigation into the crash is active and ongoing. A West Virginia State Police Crash Reconstruction Team is involved in the investigation.

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Lawmakers explore financial strains on West Virginia human services

Lawmakers asked a range of questions about the state’s level of funding for human services, building their cases for financial decisions that could come to a head during special session as soon as next month.

Gov. Jim Justice

Gov. Jim Justice, a Republican, has said he’ll soon call a special session over state financial matters, especially over human services priorities. Justice referred to “a dog’s mess, saying a budget that passed during the regular legislative session left the state’s human services funding short of where it needs to be.

As delegates considered the state budget in the final hours of the legislative session, several questioned why spending on human services items seemed far lower than they had anticipated. Democrats in the House of Delegates, during a press conference earlier this month, underscored their position that funding needs to be addressed.

The progressive West Virginia Center on Budget & Policy think tank, in a budget analysis, described deep cuts to the state’s Medicaid funding. The budget for the coming fiscal year leaves Medicaid with a shortfall of about $147 million, according to the center’s analysis.

A major part of that puzzle has been what level of funding is necessary to support people with waivers for intellectual and developmental disabilities.

A large crowd of families gathered at the Capitol on Sunday to push lawmakers to revisit a 10% cut to the program that was approved during the legislative session.

The Joint Standing Committee on Health explored those issues during a two and a half hour session Monday afternoon during legislative interim meetings.

“What are the implications on services and providers, reimbursements, if lawmakers do not fund the governor’s requested Medicaid allocation or make the necessary increases? What’s going to happen?” asked Delegate Ric Griffith, D-Wayne.

Cynthia Persily

Cynthia Persily, secretary for the West Virginia Department of Human Services, responded with a few options.

“Whenever there’s a shortage in Medicaid dollars, there are several things that we can do,” Persily said. “We can decrease enrollment in Medicaid. We can decrease services. Or we can decrease the reimbursement rate.

“So there would have to be some sort of combination of those three pieces for us to make Medicaid whole if that increased amount is not available. Now we are looking very carefully at every service that we provide, looking at where we can realize cost savings in Medicaid, and there are some that we have already identified.”

Griffith responded, “I guess what we’re looking at is less services, and for providers the possibility to keep employees — because they’re already losing them and now they’re not going to be able to keep them.”

Ray Ratke, chief executive of the health services provider enCircle, told the committee that low reimbursement rates have resulted in uncompetitive wages for workers — and then an extremely challenging environment to retain them.

David Kelly

Delegate David Kelly, R-Tyler, said he was alarmed by the $13.66 an hour pay rate for those employees.

“Can you consider that a living wage? Are people going to have a hard time making it out there?” Kelly asked. He later commented, “I’m having a hard time shaking that they’re making $13.66 an hour. That’s amazing.”

Kelly continued by asking how those wages could be raised to $19 an hour. “Where’s that money going to come from?” he asked Ratke. “I know the answer. You know the answer. Where’s it going to come from?”

The answer, Ratke said, would be higher reimbursement rates from the state.

Amy Summers

House Health Chairwoman Amy Summers, R-Taylor, asked if financial strain could prompt enCircle to stop operating in West Virginia.

“If you don’t get an increase in the rate study will you be closing your other six homes in West Virginia?” she asked.

Ratke acknowledged that is under consideration.

“We’re trying to evaluate that. I’m under oath, so I have to tell the truth,” Ratke said. “We are evaluating. We have a board meeting this week, later this week, where this is the only agenda item we have.

“For us, without any indication that there’s a long-term interest in providing sustainable — financially as well as programmatically sustainable — services, I don’t know. I think it’s going to be hard for us.”

Senate Finance Chairman Eric Tarr, speaking today on “The Dave Allen Show” on 580 WCHS radio, defended this year’s allocations for health and human services, describing greater attempts at transparency than before.

The Legislature broke apart the $7 billion Department of Health and Human Resources last year into three agencies. Tarr said the budgeting process is now more specific too.

In the past, he said, agency leaders were able to transfer funding within the big department — and it was unclear from the outside where the money was going.

Eric Tarr

Now, Tarr said, the appropriation lines in the state budget are more specific allowing lawmakers to more clearly see how money is being spent.

Among the affected areas are the waivers for intellectual and developmental disabilities as well as medical services.

“The IDD line is the fourth largest expenditure within Medicaid. When you go right down and look at it, how much we’ve spent there, it’s hundreds of millions that goes out to that. The state appropriation for that over the past few years has been about $108 million a year,” said Tarr, R-Putnam.

“One of the things that we discovered when we broke it up is that Medicaid had been moving money by lots, by hundreds of millions, to other items that we appropriated for.”

He said that essentially took the allocation responsibility from elected legislators and moved the financial power to agency leaders.

Tarr said one of the questions that he wants to explore is, “If this money was not spent for IDD waivers, where was it spent?

“So there’s answers to those questions somewhere out there. I don’t know if they’ll be satisfactory answers, but it’s the only reason we can get to this point for actually having this discussion in a very honest level, is because of that reduction we did.”

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Audit shows VFDs statewide do good work managing state funds

CHARLESTON, W.Va. — It’s not all fighting fires and responding to crashes for volunteer firefighters, they also have to properly manage the millions of dollar in state funding for their operations every quarter.

Mike Jones

During Legislative Interim meeting in the Post Audits Subcommittee, Audit Manager in the Post Audit Division, Mike Jones told lawmakers each quarter the state disburses about $32 million to 428 volunteer fire departments in the state and random audits are selected.

“Of the 94 departments audited 27 were found to be in full compliance with the applicable section of West Virginia code and had no audit findings,” Jones said.

A total of 67 volunteer fire department had audit findings with about two percent of the total funds distributed. The infractions included comingled funds, unallowable and unsupported expenditures.

“These 67 department had differing combinations of comingled funds, unallowable expenditures, and unsupported expenditures totaling $215,000,” Jones said.

Jones said due to the turnover rates within departments and the part-time nature of the workers, departments need help to make sure they follow state code. Tools are offered, but in many cases the departments have to ask for help and that can come after an audit.

“In addition to the recommendations made to the non-compliant departments all departments were provided additional resources explaining the requirements and restrictions surrounding the use of the quarterly distribution,” Jones said.

In the future, efforts are being made to include the West Virginia State Auditor’s Office in audit notifications in an effort to make as much assistance available as possible.

“We hope that through the new procedure of notifying the state auditor’s office of our audits and our continued efforts to keep the departments informed and work with them we can continue to improve this process and continue to reduce the burden on the departments,” Jones said.

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