By Autumn Shelton, WV Press News Sharing
Members of the West Virginia Legislature’s newly formed legislative subcommittee on flooding held their first meeting on Friday, where they discussed their primary goal of getting federal American Rescue Plan Act funding into the hands of property owners who still need to tear down structures destroyed by the June 2016 flood.
The subcommittee, led by Senate Minority Leader Stephen Baldwin, D-Greenbrier, was formed following the announcement that the RISE WV Clearance and Demolition Program, created to assist with flood recovery efforts, had been under federal investigation and no longer had the funds to help all those who still need structure demolition.
Also serving on the subcommittee are Del. Caleb Hanna, R-Nicholas, Del. Ed Evans, D-McDowell, Del. Dean Jeffries, R-Kanawha, and Sen. Chandler Swope, R-Mercer.
During the subcommittee’s meeting, members discussed the main ideas that should be included in the funding proposal, which must be submitted to the legislature before any federal money may be received.
Andrew Robinson, representing U.S. Sen. Joe Manchin, was present during the meeting. He said it was his understanding that American Rescue Plan Act (ARPA) funding could be used for structure demolition, but that structures would still need to have been damaged by the flood in some way before money could be allocated to property owners.
Greenbrier County Commissioner Tammy Tincher, who attended the meeting via Zoom, added that “counties had a huge part in being able to allow the demolition and abandoned structures inclusion in the final rule.” She explained that through the work of county officials, the ARPA ruling on providing funding for flood damaged properties came into existence.
“In all honesty, it came from West Virginia because of our situation where we have so many structures across the state, and the impact that it has on our economic growth,” Tincher continued, adding that she would like to see it written into the subcommittee’s proposal that structures not originally included in the RISE WV Clearance and Demolition program be included in the ARPA funding proposal.
“I think that is very important,” she stated, noting that it would give counties the ability to focus on “overall cleanup.”
She then asked for a clarification of Senate Bill 552, currently moving through the legislative process, and wanted to know if it would align with the goals of the subcommittee as they draft their proposal.
Sen. Swope responded to her question that the bill, announced by State Auditor John “JB” McCuskey on Feb. 1, is “focused on properties that are currently in the ownership of the state through forfeitures,” adding there are “thousands of them” that need to be demolished. He continued that “the good news” about the bill is that McCuskey has asked Gov. Jim Justice for $30 million in surplus money to address the concern.
“His bill will use the Department of Environmental Protection as the administrative agent, so any money that could go through the DEP program can be parallel to the program we are talking about here, depending on the ownership,” Swope said. “If we get an amount like $30 million, we can make a pretty big showing somewhere.”
“I think each project you do almost has to be an isolated project,” Swope continued, noting that a 2018 West Virginia University research study estimated statewide residential demolition projects will cost about $150 million and other building demolition projects will cost about $400 million.
The focus of the conversation then shifted to creating eligibility requirements to receive ARPA funding and finding an administrative agent.
Swope stated that he is willing to speak with DEP officials to determine if they would be the appropriate administrative agency and he suggested that all counties should pass ordinances giving them the right to condemn dilapidated structures and hire a building inspector.
House Bill 4319, also moving through the legislative process, would require county assessors “to identify defective and dilapidated properties for subsequent enforcement proceedings” and provide appropriate personnel training through the Division of Emergency Management.
Swope added that he has been recommending this type of enforcement for some time. He also noted that through the current demolition model, the contractor has the right to salvage, but counties should utilize government owned property to set up a clearance and demolition landfill to avoid expensive flood debris disposal costs, often $30 a ton. Additionally, the state should partner with the DEP to create asbestos removal contracts, which would minimize final costs.
Jennifer Ferrell, director of the Community Advancement and Development division of the West Virginia Development office, added that any bidding contract should include specifications for property remediation and include language for old car and outbuilding removal.
At the meeting’s conclusion, Baldwin stated “we will do our homework, put something together, send it out to everyone for feedback and have it ready for when we get back together.”
The counties that had been considered most impacted by the June 2016 flood include Clay, Kanawha, Nicholas and Greenbrier. Additional counties considered impacted by the flood include Fayette, Jackson, Monroe, Pocahontas, Lincoln, Roane, Summers and Webster.