By Lyra Bordelon
Candidates in Ronceverte gathered once again to debate the issues and shed light on what the city faces in the future. Hosted by the Ronceverte Women’s Club in the Ronceverte Fire Station on Tuesday, May 18, the event was moderated by The West Virginia Daily News editors Jaine Schmidt Wyatt and Matt Young.
In the last municipal election only around 70 people voted, mayoral candidate Barbara Morgan noted, and she hopes to see an increase this time around. In addition to the mayorship, one four-year seat and two two-year seats on council are up for election. Candidates include:
– Mayor – Eric Mercer, Barbara Morgan, current recorder Deena Pack, Mark Mengel
– four-year council – Leah Sills, Richard Beasley
– two-year council – Kathy King, Aaron Ransom, Tanya Hazelwood
The debate focused primarily on the mayoral candidates, while alternating which City Council candidates were allowed to answer. Council candidates could also go back and answer a question that passed them up as well.
Many of the questions looked at the same issues as the first debate, such as the four ongoing municipal water projects. Of the council candidates, however, King specifically requested to answer the question. Water loss is one large reason for the city’s current water rates, and sewer rates are also partially determined by water rates. Although the current water projects are only working on 25 percent of lines, a project from approximately ten years ago also replaced and upgraded lines in some parts of the city. The current projects look to tackle the over 60 percent water loss from city lines.
King highlighted the years-long efforts of current Mayor David Smith, former City Administrator Reba Mohler, and current City Administrator Pam Mentz. Their efforts on grant and loan applications resulted in the four currently-running water projects and the new wastewater treatment plant on the river. Because of two major delays, projects that were supposed to run one after the other are now running at the same time. King also asked voters to allow her to see the project “through to the end.”
One of these delays was a petition to the Public Service Commission from Ronceverte residents. Organized to stop the rate increase, the Public Service Commission agreed to the increase due to the necessity of major waterline work. This rate increase originally was set considering water rates before Lewisburg enacted their own rate increase to pay for a $37 million water project – with Lewisburg rates increased, Ronceverte had to increase rates in order to remain eligible for funding. Soon after this was March 2020, the beginning of the COVID-19 pandemic shutdowns.
An interesting question asked each of the mayoral candidates if they could not vote for themselves, who would they vote for?
Morgan picked Pack due to her education and youth.
Although Mercer initially objected to the question, he explained Morgan would be his pick due to her experience, willingness to stand up for what’s right, and she has lived in Ronceverte for her whole life.
Pack explained Mengel would be her pick because of his willingness to admit when he doesn’t know a lot about a topic and his persistence in researching when he does not know, pointing to his research into City Council minutes and documents about the ongoing water projects.
Mengel said there was not a “bad candidate at the table,” all with a love for the city, but Pack would be his pick because of her experience, ability to research, and her willingness to work as a team.
One audience member spoke up to ask about residents of the city making and using drugs, asking what the candidates would do to combat this issue.
Mercer stated he has spoken with Chief of Police Jerry Hopkins and wants to get a K9 unit to accompany officers that are trained to work with the dog. He said that the police have to have the backing of the city and said there were issues with the 911 dispatching in the county in Ronceverte, but did not specify what the issues were.
Pack also spoke with the chief and confirmed the department is currently looking at getting a K9 unit. However, she also noted that once someone is arrested, the case is no longer in the city’s or police’s hands, it goes to the court system. Sills agreed, noting that “overhauling the criminal justice system is not within the power of the municipality of Ronceverte.” Ransom and Sills agreed that by making improvements, allowing for family activities, and bringing in “the good” would drive out “the bad.” Ransom later noted that he was originally from Rainelle and didn’t want to see what was happening there happen in Ronceverte.
Hazelwood highlighted West Virginia Helping Hands’ efforts to reduce homelessness in the city, and the overlap between homelessness and drug addiction.
“We need to get people help,” said Hazelwood. “They have families and problems and need help. They are people too. We can’t just shun them.”
King also pointed out the responsibility of landlords in the situation. Before COVID, the council was working with WVU to “put more teeth” in the city’s ordinances to make improvements both to buildings downtown and to enforce home standards in city limits.
After a question from local youth Gregory Guet, the conversation turned to accessibility issues for Ronceverte residents with communication disorders. Guet noted that his “sister has nonverbal autism, so I was wondering what all the candidates were going to do, if you won, … to make kids with special needs feel more included?”
Pack recently helped two nonverbal communication boards move forward for Island Park and is working with the administration to make other accessibility improvements. She also thanked Gregory and his mother, Ashley Guet, for helping his sister Winter. Mercer noted that he and his son were special needs students, and knows what it’s like to need help from teachers. He said the best thing to do is to listen to what the individuals need to succeed, then help and encourage them to do whatever they want to do. Mengel said he has previous experience working with these individuals through Gateway Industries and would be willing to help with whatever they needed.
Ransom noted that he had previously worked with a child with autism and explained he and the student “had to overcome what society calls a learning disability. I don’t think it’s a learning disability. I think we need to learn, as a culture, that there is not a single person in this room that is exactly the same. Every one of us had to overcome something to exist.”
Each of the council candidates introduced themselves in their opening statements, explaining how they came to Ronceverte and what they hope to accomplish.
Sills grew up in Lewisburg, but has been a resident of Ronceverte for the past 15 years. Noting that if someone has “the energy and the talents to do things” they should do them, she explained that she joined council last year after the departure of then Councilmember Barbara Morgan. She works as an attorney for Legal Aid, helping people who need it. Although quiet by nature, she explained she wants to use her experience to help the city improve.
Beasley came to Ronceverte approximately three years ago and he explained he’s seen some “deep seated” issues in the city, but the current council is addressing these issues. His goals would be to bring jobs into the community and make the community look whole once again, pointing to the deteriorating buildings throughout the city.
King has worked at the bank for 42 years now and owns two businesses in town. Her parents and her kids were born in the city. King is the executive director of the Ronceverte Development Corporation. She also noted that, working with the now-passed Doug Hylton, the RDC has gotten grant awards to restore and sell five buildings in the community. She also noted that progress can sometimes be slow, pointing to the ten-year struggle to get the depo, owned by CSX, in shape.
Ransom grew up in Rainelle, but has been in Ronceverte for five years now. He said the city has a “family” feeling to it and he wants it to “to be a home” for his three children “for as long as they want it to be a home.” He explained he wanted to bring new blood and new perspective to ongoing efforts to improve the city.
Tonya Hazelwood is the owner of Wild Child and one of the founders of Friends of Ronceverte, a local nonprofit dedicated to city improvements. She moved to Ronceverte years before with her husband, buying a house she was told should probably be demolished, but she disagreed, saying it just needed “some love.” In 2018, she approached the city looking to paint murals in public spaces and since, has gotten several painted throughout downtown. Recently, Friends of Ronceverte helped with this year’s Make It Shine event.