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Mayor: City will prevent new bars from opening

HUNTINGTON — Huntington Mayor Steve Williams said he is asking City Council members to amend zoning ordinances to prevent new bars from opening within the city.

The proposal follows a shooting early Wednesday morning that injured seven people outside Kulture, a bar at 1113 4th Ave. that opened last summer. Police said an argument began inside the bar before the shooting occurred, which was about 90 minutes into the new year. Police said they found several people who had been shot both inside and outside the establishment. Two of those who were shot were reported by police to be in critical condition.

Williams said he would also suggest changes to the city’s business license process to add background check procedures. The owners of Kulture misrepresented the type of business they would operate and haven’t paid any taxes, he said.

“I’m going to be proposing a change in the zoning ordinances that prevents new bars from being created and being opened in the city of Huntington,” he said. “We will also be reviewing our existing business license process with public safety in mind, and we will be implementing different vetting procedures.”

The city has since sent a cease-and-desist order to Kulture, effectively shutting it down. Williams made his statements during a news conference Thursday with members of the Huntington Police Department, the Cabell County Sheriff’s Department, West Virginia State Police and Huntington City Council.

Sharon Pell, the city’s business service advocate, said Kulture did not follow through with required steps to make it a legitimate business after it was granted a special permit from the Huntington Board of Zoning Appeals in July 2019.

Kulture LLC initially applied for a certificate of occupancy as a retail establishment that would sell vaping products. The owners then asked for a special permit to operate a bar, which was granted by the Board of Zoning Appeals on the condition the owners obtain required permits from the West Virginia Alcohol Beverage Control Administration and the Cabell-Huntington Health Department.

Pell said Kulture LLC never received permits from the state Alcohol Beverage Control Administration or the health department. If the owners had done so, the city would have issued its own alcohol permit, Pell said. Kulture then began advertising itself as Kulture Hookah Bar online.

Williams said the city had more than 20 calls about the bar since it opened, but nothing indicated that the bar was operating illegitimately. Wednesday morning’s shooting was the first time city officials learned the bar did not have proper permits in place.

It was also the first time Williams said he learned that Charon Chere (Harris) Reese, one of the bar’s owners, had pleaded guilty in federal court in 2016 for her role in a Detroit-based heroin conspiracy to maintaining a residence for the purpose of distributing heroin.

In July 2019, Reese told the Huntington Board of Zoning Appeals that she wanted to open the private bar for only people who are 25 years or older. All bars, taverns and restaurants seeking to serve alcohol in the city must receive permission from the board before opening.

At the time, board members said they were reluctant to approve opening new bars downtown, but were reassured by Reese’s promise that her bar would be a private establishment catering to a more mature crowd. Reese said she wanted a place where her band could perform together.

“It’s a Huntington-based band. However, I am the youngest member,” Reese said. “We never have anywhere to go. There are always kids there and they are always naked and twerking. I wanted to have somewhere comfortable to go for people 25 and older.”

Williams said it was only recently the city learned of fliers advertising the bar, which mentioned “twerk” contests, a dance party and hookah pipes. The flier for Wednesday morning’s party included a picture of a woman holding an assault weapon.

A message left for Reese was not returned by press time Thursday. Williams was asked if his proposal would hurt future bars seeking to open within the city. He said he would ask City Council members to amend zoning ordinances preventing new bars from opening.

“I don’t care if it hurts anyone,” he said. “I don’t believe we need any more bars here. The intent here is to make sure we don’t have over-development of bars.”

Two in critical condition following New Year's Day shooting

HUNTINGTON — Huntington officials said two people wounded in a New Year’s Day shooting at a downtown Huntington bar are in critical condition.

“We have a total of seven victims,” Huntington Interim Police Chief Ray Cornwell said during a news conference at City Hall on Thursday afternoon. “Two are in critical condition, but all are stable.”

Cornwell said the victims’ names were not being released because of the ongoing investigation into the incident.

Late Thursday evening, an arrest warrant was issued for Kymonie Desean Davis, 30, of Detroit, Michigan. The warrant charges him with seven counts of wanton endangerment and one count of malicious wounding. He also has active warrants locally for burglary and domestic battery and is wanted for fraud in Illinois with no extradition.

Cornwell said Davis should be considered armed and dangerous.

Cornwell said the victims were transported via ambulance and private vehicle to area hospitals at about 1:45 a.m. New Year’s Day after shots rang out at the Kulture Hookah Bar in the 1100 block of 4th Avenue. Several of the victims were found shot inside of the bar and outside.

“We encountered a scene there with several persons who had been shot, and the scene was chaotic initially due to the large number of people in the area and around the scene, many of whom were intoxicated,” Cornwell said.

Cornwell said several officers responded after the shooting was reported.

“Our initial response consisted of eight patrol officers, a patrol supervisor, an off-duty patrolman, five detectives, three forensics investigators and myself,” he said. “Officers from the Cabell County Sheriff’s Department and the West Virginia State Police also responded to the area to help us run calls.”

Cornwell said he is confident that the motive for the shooting was the result of a dispute between individuals.

“This was not a random or targeted act,” Cornwell said.

Cornwell would not say if there was more than one shooter involved and refused to give an age range of the shooting victims.

“This is a current, ongoing and rapidly evolving investigation,” he said. “To date, we have interviewed approximately half of the major involved parties and all of the available witnesses.

Cornwell said detectives have executed three search warrants — “one at the location and two on victims, which have resulted in the recovery of numerous items of evidentiary value.”

Cornwell added the officers are in the process of reviewing all the video that they have available to them.

Cornwell says multiple law enforcement agencies were investigating possible criminal activity at the Kulture Hookah Bar prior to Wednesday’s shooting.

“At the time of the incident in question, none had developed into actionable information, but those investigations are ongoing,” he said. “We have several good leads we are following up on as we work to positively identify our suspect, but again, we are very confident that this all stemmed from an incident between individuals at that location and it was not a randomly targeted incident by someone who was not there.”

Cornwell declined to release any other information or details until he received forensics information.

The shooting was one of three in downtown Huntington in the past five months; the first two were deadly.

On Aug. 4, 2019, Tyler Zhea Asbury, 19, of Lavalette, died after being shot at about 2 a.m. at the Hot Corner Bar in the 1400 block of 4th Avenue in Huntington. Since the shooting, the Hot Corner Bar has surrendered its liquor license to the West Virginia Alcoholic Beverage Control Administration. It has since reopened under a new name.

On Sept. 22, 2019, Sontezz Lomax, 39, died after being shot outside a bar in the 800 block of 4th Avenue. Another person received non-life-threatening injuries in that shooting, as well.

Huntington Mayor Steve Williams was asked if Huntington was a safe place.

“Of course Huntington is safe,” he said. “Our crime has been declining every single year.”

Anyone with information regarding Davis’ whereabouts, or information on the shooting, is asked to call 911 or the Huntington Police Department’s anonymous tip line at 304-696-4444.

Trump's plan to curb teen vaping exempts some flavors

WASHINGTON — U.S. health officials will begin cracking down on most flavored e-cigarettes that are popular with underage teenagers, but their plan includes major exceptions that benefit vaping manufacturers, retailers and adults who use the nicotine-delivery devices.

The Trump administration announced Thursday that it will prohibit fruit, candy, mint and dessert flavors from small, cartridge-based e-cigarettes favored by high school and middle school students. But menthol and tobacco-flavored e-cigarettes will be allowed to remain on the market.

The targeted flavor ban will also entirely exempt large, tank-based vaping devices, which are primarily sold in vape shops that cater to adult smokers.

Together, the two exemptions represent a significant retreat from President Donald Trump’s original plan announced four months ago, which would have banned all vaping flavors — including menthol — from all types of e-cigarettes. The new policy will spare a significant portion of the multibillion-dollar vaping market. And the changes mark a major victory for thousands of vape shop owners who sell the tank-based systems, which allow users to mix customized nicotine flavors.

Vape shop owners expressed relief following the announcement.

“We’re thankful the guidance doesn’t shut down flavors in every aspect,” said Spike Babaian, owner of VapeNY in New York City.

Anti-tobacco advocates immediately condemned the decision to permit menthol and exempt tank-based vapes, accusing the administration of caving to industry pressure.

“It’s disturbing to see the results of industry lobbying to undermine public health protections, especially the lives and health of our youth,” said American Lung Association President and CEO Harold Wimmer. The association and other health groups argue that teenagers who vape will simply shift to using menthol if it remains on the market.

E-cigarettes are battery-powered devices that typically heat a flavored nicotine solution into an inhalable aerosol. They have been pitched to adults as a less-harmful alternative to traditional cigarettes, but there is limited data on their ability to help smokers quit.

The Food and Drug Administration has struggled for years to find the appropriate approach to regulate vaping. No e-cigarettes have yet won FDA approval, but the agency permits their sale under a policy called “enforcement discretion.” Under Thursday’s policy change, the FDA said it would begin targeting companies that continue to sell the targeted products. Companies will have 30 days after the policy is published to halt manufacturing, sales and shipping.

“We have to protect our families,” Trump told reporters on Tuesday, ahead of the announcement. “At the same time, it’s a big industry. We want to protect the industry.”

The flavor restrictions apply to e-cigarettes that use prefilled nicotine cartridges mainly sold at gas stations and convenience stores. Juul Labs is the biggest player in that market, but it previously pulled all of its flavors except menthol and tobacco after coming under intense political scrutiny. The small, discrete devices are the most popular brand among underage users.

Many smaller manufacturers continue to sell sweet, fruity flavors like “grape slushie,” “strawberry cotton candy” and “sea salt blueberry.”

The flavor restrictions won’t affect the larger specialty devices sold at vape shops, which typically don’t admit customers under 21. These tank-based systems allow users to fill the device with the flavor of their choice. Sales of these devices represent an estimated 40% of the U.S. vaping business, with sales across some 15,000 to 19,000 shops.

The new policy still represents the federal government’s biggest step yet to combat a surge in teen vaping that officials fear is hooking a generation of young people on nicotine. In the latest government survey, more than 1 in 4 high school students reported using e-cigarettes in the previous month. Late last month Trump signed a law raising the minimum age to purchase all tobacco and vaping products from 18 to 21 nationwide.

Health and Human Services Secretary Alex Azar said the administration decided to exempt menthol after reviewing new data showing the flavor was not popular with teens.

“As we got better data on the flavors, we modified our thinking,” Azar said.

Survey data published in November reported that less than 6% of teens picked menthol as their top choice for vaping. In contrast, mint was the most popular flavor among sophomores and seniors.

Incoming FDA Commissioner Stephen Hahn said the government’s approach attempts to balance the problem of underage vaping with “the potential role that e-cigarettes may play in helping adult smokers transition completely away” from regular cigarettes.

When Trump officials first sketched out their plans at a White House event in September, they specifically said menthol would be banned. But that effort stalled after vaping proponents and lobbyists pushed back and White House advisers told Trump that a total flavor ban could cost him votes.

Industry groups including the Vapor Technology Association launched an aggressive social media campaign — #IVapeIVote — contending that the plan would force the closure of vaping shops, eliminating jobs and sending users of e-cigarettes back to traditional smokes.

Trump’s initial announcement came amid an outbreak of unexplained lung illnesses tied to vaping. But since then, health officials have tied the vast majority of the cases to a contaminating filler added to illicit THC vaping liquids. THC is the chemical in marijuana that makes users feel high. Makers of legal nicotine-based vaping products have tried to distance themselves from the problem.

FDA officials said Thursday they will continue targeting vaping products that appeal to underage users in other ways, such as packaging that mimics juice boxes, cereal or kid-friendly snacks.

Administration officials also pledged to work with the industry ahead of a looming deadline that manufacturers say threatens their products. The FDA is scheduled to begin reviewing all e-cigarettes in May. Only those that can demonstrate a benefit for U.S. public health will be permitted to stay on the market.

Officials noted that products submitted by the deadline that don’t appeal to kids will be permitted to remain on the market for up to one year pending FDA review. They also clarified that some vape flavors could return to the market if they can win FDA approval.

Trump suggested ahead of the announcement that the flavor restrictions might be temporary.

“Hopefully, if everything’s safe, they’re going to be going very quickly back onto the market,” he told reporters at his Mar-a-Lago resort in Florida.

Carryover of taxes helps WV exceed revenue estimates for December

CHARLESTON — December proved to be a merry month for state tax collections, topping monthly revenue estimates by $6.9 million — largely thanks to timing issues that carried taxes due in November into December.

For the month, the state collected a total of $428.2 million, exceeding the estimate of $421.35 million.

That was primarily because taxes due at the end of November could not be remitted to the state until December, since state offices were closed for the final three days of the month.

During December legislative interim meetings, Revenue Secretary Dave Hardy told legislators to expect a rebound after a weak November, noting that $11 million of payments had come in on the first two workdays of the month.

“We had two very strong collection days Monday and Tuesday,” Hardy said at the time.

With the revenue surplus for December, the state’s year-to-date budget deficit shrank to $33.4 million, with total year-to-date tax collections of $2.203 billion down 1.4% from the same point in 2018.

Anticipating fiscal improvement in December, Gov. Jim Justice announced last month that a proposed $100 million of mid-year state spending cuts would not be necessary.

In a statement Monday, Justice said, “Our state is still in great financial health and we’re doing well in lots of areas. That said, we are always looking at all of our numbers every single day because we know that even though we’ve done so much, there are always areas where we can continue to improve.”

December tax collections finished in the black even though the two main pillars of state revenue — personal income taxes and consumer sales taxes — missed estimates for the month.

Income tax collections of $174.8 million were $3.18 million below estimates and down 3.2% from December 2018.

Sales tax collections of $127.3 million were $1.2 million short of estimates and down 1.1% from December 2018.

Likewise, corporate net tax collections of $30.4 million were $2.6 million below estimates and 2.6% below December 2018 collections. Severance taxes had a rare positive month in December, again primarily because of timing issues, with $43 million of collections exceeding estimates by nearly $200,000.

However, year-to-date severance tax collections of $136.1 million are $37.8 million below estimates and down 35% from the same point in 2018. That’s the result of a global oversupply of natural gas, which has caused prices to plunge, resulting in a sharp downturn in demand and pricing for coal.

Business and Occupation taxes — paid primarily by electric utilities — pulled December tax collections into the black, with December collections of $17.6 million topping estimates by $13.4 million and coming in 121% higher than in December 2018.

As the Governor’s Office noted, that was the result of a “large carryover of deposits due at the end of November.”

The release of the revenue report by the Governor’s Office broke a trend. Since June, the Senate Finance Committee had been preemptively releasing the revenue numbers ahead of the Justice administration as part of an apparent ongoing feud between Justice and Senate leadership.