CHARLESTON, W.Va. — Two Monongalia County delegates have created a North-Central West Virginia Roads Caucus to coordinate legislative efforts to tackle Division of Highways District 4 problems.
And District 4 road problems will be the subject of a public hearing set for 9 to 9:30 a.m. Tuesday in the House chamber. The hearing was arranged by Majority Leader Amy Summers, R-Taylor, for constituents and county commissioners to air their concerns. A Division of Highways representative has been invited to attend.
Delegates John Williams and Evan Hansen, both D-Monongalia, announced the formation of the caucus on Monday. Williams said 17 delegates and 10 senators serve districts that sit within all or part of Division of Highways District 4 – Mon, Preston, Marion, Harrison, Taylor, Doddridge – and they’re extending invitations for all to join.
“The seminal purpose of this caucus is to create more of a unified think tank” to coordinate and consult on bills Williams said.
“We drive on the roads every single day just like everyone back home does,” he said. “We understand how bad they are. That’s why it’s got to be a major priority. That’s why we’re excited about this: to bring everybody together to speak as one unified voice within the Legislature to talk about these issues.”
Hanson said the caucus is an extension of District 4 county leader caucus that meets periodically.
The springboard for the legislative caucus, they said, was the January Performance Evaluation and Research Division (PERD) report, request by Sen. Bob Beach, D-Monongalia, and Delegate Isaac Sponaugle, D-Pendleton, on DOH Districts 4 and 5 maintenance allocations and spending.
Districts are supposed to spend 70 percent of their maintenance budgets, the report says, on core maintenance: mowing, patching, ditching and snow removal. But only two of the 13 counties have done so during the period 2009-2017, and those two during only a small portion of the years studied.
During that span, Monongalia’s office spent anywhere form a high of 64.24 percent (2010) to a low of 44.89 percent (2015). In 2016, it spent 55.37 percent; in 2017, 50.49 percent. Preston spent from a high of 62.44 percent (2009) to a low of 50.71 percent (2012). During the last two years it spent 53.99 percent and 56.78 percent, respectively.
The report noted several factors that contribute to the sub-par spending, and DOH affirmed three of them: weather, short labor supply and truck traffic from the oil and gas industry.
Hansen said there may be several possible solutions to the problems. One: Raise the pay for DOH workers. “We need to pay our workers better. We need to pay fair wages so that we can get qualified workers and keep them.”
Another is to make sure the oil and gas industry does what it should to repair the roads so money isn’t diverted from the core maintenance plan.
Williams said a bill will be introduced, by a delegate in a different DOH district, to return a portion of oil and gas severance tax to producing counties — in much the same way coal severance is apportioned.
Beach said Williams and Hansen have talked to him about the caucus, and he’s happy to participate whenever he can.
While the hearing will raise many issues, specific answers will arise out of legislative committees, he said.
“The money’s being allocated but we’re not getting it used,” he said. He disagrees with DOH that weather is a major factor; if it was, Preston would be seeing bigger sub-par spending issues.
Lack of DOH workers is the biggest factor, he believes.
To that end, he knows of a delegate who will introduce a bill to raise DOH worker pay by $3 an hour.
Another bill is coming to make the 70 percent requirement – which is only a recommendation – stronger by requiring each county and district to come within plus or minus 5 percent of that target.
A third bill will be another attempt to streamline hiring, which can take weeks as applications have to flow for the local garage to Charleston and back again. This leads to many applicants taking other jobs during the lag time.
“We want to give that authority to the local garage,” he said. “They understand their needs better than anyone.” They could move forward, work during the probationary period, and if Charleston objects during that time, OK. If Charleston misses the window, the hire is permanent.
Story by David Beard, The Dominion Post