By Lon Anderson
The annual Mathias state legislative town hall meeting held last week in the Mathias School showed that area residents have a strong interest in energy, jobs, transportation, the environment and the drug epidemic.
Although the crowd of 20 or so was smaller than last year’s, the interest and intensity were still very much in evidence. “Tonight’s crowd is more like our average,” said State Senator Randy Smith, in opening this year’s forum. Last year’s standing-room-only attendance, he noted, “was one of the largest crowds we’d ever had.” [private]
He and Senator Dave Sypolt, who both represent the 14th Senate district which includes Hardy County, were the meeting organizers. “We want to serve you and take care of your problems and be accessible to you,” Smith said, as he and Sypolt began the meeting.
“If you’re riding down the road and see something and think ‘there ought to be a law…’, maybe you need to call us,” Sypolt said. “And, if you have issues, we want to help—constituent services are a very important part of what we do.”
The first question came quickly: “What did you deal with last session and what’s coming up this session that you can tell us about?”
“Well, Randy’s chairman of the Energy Committee and I’m vice chair, so we focused on a lot of energy issues,” Sypolt said.
“Senator Sypolt and I are sort of the black sheep down there,” Smith said. “Our biggest interest is protecting the rights of our land owners.” He indicated that others in the legislature were more interested in pulling the resources out of the ground.
“We don’t want to see the same thing happening with the gas industry that happened with the coal industry 50-80 years ago,” said Smith, when industry was allowed to run roughshod over citizens’ rights. “Don’t misunderstand, I’m a coal miner,” he continued.
“So they (Senate leadership) took the legislation (on gas development) away from us last year and gave it to the Judiciary Committee because we didn’t agree with them.”
“Natural gas has been rapidly increasing here,” Sypolt explained. “I would like to see us use the gas to power our manufacturing rather than pipe it all out of state. We’ve been told there may be as many gas reserves here as in Saudi Arabia.”
“It’s being said that the three states, West Virginia, Ohio and Pennsylvania, may have 35 percent of our entire nation’s reserves,” Smith said. “The more we can keep here and use for jobs here” the better. It’s got the potential to be something huge here, but we’ve got to do it right.”
“We just got a commitment from the Chinese to invest $83 million to finance two big gas-powered electric plants,” Smith continued.
“Who’d get the jobs?” came the question from the audience.
“Well, we’d get the jobs and the taxes,” Smith responded.
And then someone asked about the wind power. “Those windmills, they wouldn’t have been built if we hadn’t given them huge tax subsidies,” Smith continued, noting that they were not such a good deal for the state. “They are only taxed on their salvage value — about 5 percent of their actual value — and then they’re only taxed on 60 percent of that value. The ones up in Tucker County, they’ve gotten those tax breaks for 18 years. No other industry gets those kinds of tax breaks.”
Additionally, he said, they don’t create many jobs. A year or two ago there were 12 employees managing them, Smith continued: last year it may have been up to 60. And they ship it (the power) all out of state— it’s green power that the cities are willing to pay premium prices for.
“And some environmentalists came before our committee opposing them, in addition to being against coal, gas, and nuclear,” Smith said.
“I was driving down the road one day and heard the environmentalists talking against wind power and almost wrecked my truck,” Sypolt said.
“They (windmills) make a lot of noise—they are very loud, and they kill a lot of birds,” Smith explained. “One company reported as many as 150 bald eagles killed. Imagine the uproar if anyone else had killed just one or two…”.
“If we went forward with gas what’s the timeframe?” asked another member of the audience.
“Immediately,” responded Smith. “Wells are popping up all over in some counties.”
“So, what’s the concern with the pipelines?” asked another.
“Explosions,” Smith responded. “But the new pipelines have all sorts of gauges, monitors and technology, made with heavier materials and are welded—little chance they’ll blow up. They automatically shut down when just a slight change in pressure is detected.”
“I’ve seen “stop the pipeline” stickers on lots of mailboxes over in Pendleton,” said another in the audience.
Concerning broadband issues, and the need for fast computer service everywhere in the state, Smith told the audience, “I can’t help you with Frontier: they won’t talk to me. I’ve been fighting them for years. I lost my parking space at the capitol just weeks after I was elected. I stepped on a lot of toes and got a lot of people upset.
“But I won the case against Frontier,” Smith continued, noting it was a big court decision. “Hardy County is supposed to get some improvements” as a result.
“I can’t even get some broadband service at my house,” Sypolt added. “I’ve got a hot spot service with my phone and it works OK but it’s expensive.”
“I hate to break the news to Dave,” Smith said with a grin, “but Frontier probably has something to do with that hotspot service.”
“What’s with the long lines at the DMV in Moorefield recently?” asked another audience member. “There were about 75 people there and I just left,” he said.
“People are coming to Moorefield from counties all over the state because it’s so efficient,” Smith asserted.
As Hardy County Sheriff Bryan Ward rose to leave, he was asked if there were any issues he’d like to raise before departing.
He said he was very concerned about the drug epidemic and the way we treat the violators. “It’s frustrating for us to know that sometimes those we arrest will beat us home.”
“My proposal,” he continued, “would be to create a regional competing jail authority, so the state could have some hardcore jails — just 6 X 8 foot cells with a toilet, no rec time, no amenities, no TV. Bologna and cheese sandwiches three times a day. Just make it a horrible place to go.”
“I don’t want to sound like I’m not compassionate, but I have to look the victims in the eye,” Ward continued. “The ACLU’d be jumping up and down.”
“How about a whipping post?” asked another in the audience.
“When they get in (jail), we need to make sure they don’t want to come back,” said Senator Smith.
“The recidivism rate is sky high in drug addiction cases,” Ward asserted. “Non-repeats are only in the high 20’s.”
“The drug issue is just huge,” Smith added, as are its impacts. “For every drug arrest, you have 3, 4, 5 or 6 children you have to deal with,” he said, explaining that the fallout from this crisis goes way beyond just the offender.
Another problem they’re having in some areas of the state, Smith said, was abuse of the ambulance services. Some people over in Tucker and other places use the ambulance as their own taxi service. “They call for chest pains and then get to Harrisonburg and say they’re feeling better and hop out. We just had someone prosecuted for that.”
That’s when the questions turned to transportation. “Corridor H, when are they going to build it?” asked someone.
“They’re working on Kerens to Davis now,” said Smith, and then, perhaps, they’ll get to the Wardensville segment.
“Please just get it finished to Strasburg,” urged another.
“Nobody wants it done more than Dave and I,” Smith said. “I like the new Secretary of Transportation Tom Smith—he comes by our offices regularly. He’s already been six or seven times. I only met with (former) Secretary Mattox one time, and I had to go to his office.
“Secretary Smith, he’s helping us get the burned-out corner building in Mathias torn down,” Smith said.
“The road bonds, I really don’t understand what they are going to do,” said another citizen. “Will they help us get some of our backroads repaired—they’re getting really rough –like Wetzel Hollow, Middle Cove, Dove Hollow—they need repair.”
“The bonds are not for repair, but for new constructions,” responded Sen. Sypolt. “They haven’t been sold yet so we won’t know until next spring what the terms are, but if you think the economy is going to grow over the next 10 years, then the bonds are the right way to go.”
“I honestly believe you’re going to see roads get better. Tom Smith is very diligent and wants to get things done. Maddox seemed to be biding his time,” Smith added.
“I’m not used to hearing road complaints in Hardy County,” Sypolt said. “That’s Preston where we hear them.”
“I only had three complaints this year from Hardy (concerning roads),” Smith said. “I get that many every week from other counties. But let us know if you have road problems—you have (Bill) Robinette as your District Manager and he’s the best one of them. He’s very responsive to our requests.”
“There are three ways to address road problems,” Sypolt explained. “You can call one of us, call Robinette, or go to the state’s interactive website where you can click on a map about your problem and they will respond.”
Sypolt said he actually thought the state was doing pretty well with transportation, growing the interstates and Corridor H, which is important for the economy. Our bigger problem, he believes, is getting capital, and that involves not only transportation but also our workforce.
The Senators raised two issues concerning the workforce. One was the inability of so many workers to pass drug tests, and the other is the age of the workforce. “Our workforce is the second oldest in the nation, second only to Florida,” Sypolt asserted.
Another question involved the threat of forest fires, noting how they had been ravaging the west.
Sypolt said he was encouraged about that. We have a new Director of Forestry in the state who is a good guy, and I asked him about that. He says a lot of the issue involves the age of trees. “Old trees, he told me, fall down and shed limbs, creating a lot of litter on the forest floors—fuel for fires. Younger forests are, therefore, better and healthier and lower the fire threat. He has a proposal to increase the harvesting of trees by a factor of 5.”
Not only could this reduce the fire threat, the Senator explained, but it could also add jobs, with more hard woods to produce more furniture and wood products, and it could open more forests to hunting.
“I’m excited to have a new director of forestry who wants to increase the harvest,” Sypolt said. “We’re not talking about clear cutting, but managing our forests to keep them healthy.”
Another citizen suggested that perhaps the state could become a leader in environmental engineering.
The state is making a lot of progress on the environmental front, Sypolt noted. The area where the Monongahela and the Cheat Rivers come together, 30 years ago they were considered dead. We had a bass competition there last year. That’s how far they’ve come back.”
There was applause as the meeting ended and Senator Sypolt responded: “You all are an easy crowd—I like this.”[/private]