CHARLESTON, W.Va. — West Virginia RISE is down to one main construction contractor for the effort to get more than 400 flood victims into homes.
Thompson Construction, which has handled mobile homes, remains active. Two other original contractors, Appalachia Service Project and Danhill, are not.
“Optimally, you would have multiple contractors constructing multiple houses at a time,” Adjutant General James Hoyer said last week.
“Now Thompson is big enough that they can do multiple units at a time. But, from the standpoint of the state of West Virginia, having multiple entities bidding on this is the optimal way, as well as multiple organizations doing them at the same time.”
The situation has been a concern for weeks for legislators who represent constituents still recovering from the devastating 2016 flood.
“We had three different groups in here working and now we’re down to one that does manufactured homes,” said Delegate Dean Jeffries, R-Kanawha.
West Virginia marked the third anniversary of the flood on June 23.
The state was awarded $149 million in disaster relief funding from the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development. That agency has West Virginia listed as a “slow spender,” based on how long it would take to close out the grant.
The state still has 423 housing cases awaiting construction. West Virginia has completed 51 homes.
One of the issues has been the contractors available to build the homes.
Officials with RISE have been grappling with this. The Justice administration proposed legislation aimed at changing the requirements for construction contracts through the state Division of Purchasing. Legislators balked at the open-ended nature of the legislation.
“Every time we identify something we can do to fix something and speed ‘em up, we’ve taken ‘em and tried ‘em,” said Brian Abraham, general counsel for the Governor’s Office. “I think we need to do a better job of communicating our intent.”
The aim, Hoyer and others said, was to promote smaller batches of homes in contracts to entice more bidders.
“Part of the reason you’ve got somebody like Thompson is they do this nationally. They’ve got the expertise in house to deal with a lot of the quirks that reside in the HUD process and they’re big enough to more efficiently deal with the state process we have as well. And cash flow is a big issue too,” Hoyer said.
“So if you are a small West Virginia contractor and you have to wait a long time on cash flow of payment it makes it difficult to do more than one at a time.”
For now, RISE has lined up West Virginia Voluntary Organizations Active in Disaster as a grant subrecipient to handle some of the cases.
“You have to be bonded to be a contractor. A lot of the small construction companies are not. So we have signed a subrecipient agreement,” said Jenny Gannaway, chairwoman of West Virginia VOAD.
“We’ll be bringing volunteers in from around the country to start building some of these homes. We need to get somebody out there moving and building those houses.”
On the volunteer efforts that have been strong over the past three years, Gannaway acknowledged that some are running low on donated funds.
“A lot of the donations that came in to the voluntary agencies in 2016, a lot of them have been used and they’re gone,” she said.
Gannaway added, “Donated dollars only go so far. You know that.”
But she said several remain active and that a summer influx of volunteers is expected.
“People are still ready to come and help West Virginia,” she said. “That’s what’s unique about the voluntary agencies. It’s a mission. It’s what they have dedicated their lives to doing. We still have a lot of volunteers ready to come.”
Delegate Jeffries said he appreciates the efforts of VOAD but worries that the solution isn’t solid long-term when millions of dollars in federal funding are available.
“But it sounds like now we’re abandoning using the contractors and now going to VOAD,” Jeffries said. “So once again we’re kind of shifting, going a different route.”
He questions how the setup will work in practice.
“We have $150 million allotted to build houses. We’re no longer paying contractors, we’re paying VOAD a management fee. All these volunteer groups coming in and building houses for free when they have all this money available that’s not being spent now,” he said.
“Are they going to continue to volunteer when they know there was money allotted to take care of this through the private sector with groups such as ASP but we’re not using them? Instead we’re just saying we’re having volunteers come.”
Paula Brown, the deputy director of Greenbrier County Emergency Services, said she has seen very little construction progress lately.
“I don’t know that anything is getting better,” she said.
Brown said the volunteer groups that have worked so hard have reached a crossroads.
“Because it has taken so long to determine eligibility, these long-term groups have pretty much exhausted their funding,” Brown said.
“They have sporadic donations, but they don’t have a reserve to work from. They have modest reserves but not enough.”
Senator Greg Boso, R-Nicholas, made reference to the hundreds of homes put in place already by volunteer organizations.
Compared to what volunteers have already done, Boso said the progress under RISE has stagnated.
“There wasn’t an urgency or immediacy responding to the local people. A lot of that was left to the volunteer organization sand your faith-based organizations doing repairs and restorations when we had monies available through HUD and other sources to respond to those needs.
“If those monies were made available we need to make sure we’re taking advantage of every one of those dollars and providing people a home to live in.”