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Soft energy markets contribute to revenue shortfalls

CHARLESTON — Sharp downturns in coal exports, natural gas prices, along with court actions halting construction of two major natural gas pipelines has pushed the 2019-20 state budget into a deficit early on, Deputy Revenue Secretary Mark Muchow told legislators Monday.

Muchow said the budget assumed a 1.2% downturn from record tax collections of $4.75 billion in 2018-19, but finished the first two months of the budget year down 6.8% from the same point last year.

Muchow blamed the current $49.8 million budget shortfall on a 50% drop in coal exports, a 48% drop in natural gas prices, and the loss of 4,000 natural gas pipeline construction jobs.

“The energy sector is pretty soft right now,” Muchow told the interim Joint Committee on Finance.

Most of the year-to-date revenue shortfall comes down to severance taxes missing estimates by $26.8 million and personal income tax collections coming up $21.78 million short, because of the downturn in high paying construction jobs, he said.

He also said steel production has dropped nationally, reducing demand for metallurgical coal.

Muchow said part of August’s $16.8 million shortfall was a timing issue, with the last day of the month falling on a Saturday, meaning that a lot of taxes due on the 31st will show up as September revenue.

“I think the numbers in September will be closer to estimates than they are today,” he said, adding, “That will help cut into the shortfall for the year-to-date.”

However, he said softness in the energy sector is likely to persist long-term.

Muchow said state agency heads have been asked to propose 4 percent midyear spending cuts in the event revenue collections continue to fall below estimates.

He stressed that the cuts would be worst-case scenario, and said preparing midyear cuts is an exercise most agency heads have gone through repeatedly.

“Our agencies have been used to midyear budget cuts,” he said.

Also Monday, Amy Willard, director of School Finance for the state Department of Education, put the cost of the omnibus education bill passed in June at $134.1 million a year.

The largest cost will be $62.7 million a year for 5% on average pay raises for teachers and school service personnel, along with a $5 million a year increase in pension fund contributions to account for higher future retirement benefits.

Willard said some of the cost figures are guesstimates, such as the $2.1 million a year cost to provide $500 bonuses to teachers who use four or fewer personal leave days each year.

Familiar fall sights delight

HUNTINGTON — Autumn has begun, and while it may be a few weeks before most of us are surrounded by the oranges, reds and golds of the season, employees at a local greenhouse found themselves surrounded by the sights of the season.

On the first day of fall, workers at Hatcher’s Greenhouse, with locations in South Point, Ohio, and on 5th Street in Huntington, scrubbed pumpkins to a glossy orange shine, arranged newly blooming mums, and turned average hay into coveted decor.

Officially, fall began Monday, Sept. 23, and ends on Saturday, Dec. 21, this year. However, that doesn’t automatically mean a reprieve from the summer-like temperatures the Tri-State and other areas continue to experience.

According to the latest three-month outlook from NOAA’s Climate Prediction Center, the entire country will have warmer-than-average temperatures from October through December. According to weather.com, this warm outlook for autumn follows the hottest summer on record in the Northern Hemisphere. July was the planet’s hottest single month in 140 years of record-keeping, according to the site.

Jason DeCrow  

Secretary-General Antonio Guterres addresses the Climate Summit in the United Nations General Assembly at U.N. headquarters, Monday, Sept. 23, 2019. (AP Photo/Jason DeCrow)

Huntington bar's liquor license safe for now after deadly shooting

HUNTINGTON – As police continue an investigation into a deadly shooting that killed one man and injured another along 4th Avenue on Saturday, state officials said Monday the liquor license for the bar near the shooting site is safe for now.

The Huntington Police Department responded to a shooting at about 2:51 a.m. Saturday outside of a bar in the 800 block of 4th Avenue in Huntington to find one person, Sontezz Lomax, 39, of Charleston, dead and another injured at the scene. The injured person was taken to St. Mary’s Medical Center with non-life threatening injuries, possibility caused by flying debris.

Gig Robinson, spokesperson for the West Virginia Alcoholic Beverage Control Administration, said the administration has not taken any administrative action against the bar, The Lantern, as of Monday afternoon, but its liquor license status remains under review.

“We were aware of the shooting that occurred just a few hours after it happened,” he said. “We are looking into it and working with the local authorities as they continue the criminal investigation.”

Huntington Police Chief Hank Dial did not release an update in the criminal investigation Monday, citing the ongoing investigation.

The shooting was at least Huntington’s fourth homicide in the city in 2019 and the second in downtown Huntington since August. Tyler Zhea Asbury, 19, of Lavalette, died Aug. 4 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 ABCA.

Anyone with information about the shooting is asked to contact the Huntington Police Department at 304-696-4420, ext. 1025 or the Crime Tip Line at 304-696-4444.

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Officials seek more services for those with disabilities

CHARLESTON — One of the many devastating consequences of the opioid epidemic in West Virginia is the effect it has on children, and if something isn’t done to help them the cycle will continue, said Marilyn Pearce, regional director of Children’s Home Society in West Virginia.

“West Virginia offers specialized childcare for babies with neonatal abstinence syndrome, but what about when these babies are 5, or 8, 10 or 14?” Pearce posed to the West Virginia Legislature’s Joint Committee on Health on Monday morning.

Pearce said one of the consistent needs across the state is childcare, especially for children with exceptional needs such as autism or Down syndrome. It’s a problem West Virginia has been discussing since the 1970s, when the state was sued after a person was improperly institutionalized for a disability, Pearce said.

“When parents desperately want to be parents but do not have the resources in place to assist them, sometimes their only option is an out-of-state placement,” she said. “At the (Children’s Home Society Exceptional Youth Emergency Shelter), one of the most consistent reasons we saw placements fail, parents back out and children sent out of state was the lack of community-based services.”

Pearce said she fears this problem is only going to get worse as a result of the opioid epidemic.

“Foster parents have to have child care before they get a placement,” Pearce said. “How do you go about finding child care for a 16-year-old nonverbal with autism with severe trauma? In the state’s current circumstances, you don’t.”

Neonatal abstinence syndrome, or NAS, is a collection of symptoms an infant exposed to drugs in the womb experiences after birth, including tremors, high-pitched crying and trouble eating. The long-term effects of NAS are not yet known, but early research indicates an increased risk of education disabilities, cognitive impairments, and emotional and behavioral disorders are all a result of NAS.

“The rate of babies born with NAS is steadily increasing since 2012,” Pearce said. “In the same time, the number of West Virginia students with special needs has steadily increased since then, even though the number of children in the state’s public education system has decreased. As these children age, our state needs to be prepared to handle children with exceptionalities and the ever-present needs of their families.”

Pearce’s solution is a therapeutic daycare center that accepts babies as well as children over the age 14 modeled after the Achievement Center of Texas. Pearce said the ideal situation would make it publicly funded so Medicaid could be billed for services.

The Achievement Center of Texas is an award winning nonprofit that provides day care and day habilitation care for children and adults with mental and physical exceptionalities, such as autism, Down syndrome, stroke survivors and the deaf and blind.

The center provides life skills training, arts exploration, educational assistance and community inclusion for children and young adults with special needs “so they can learn functional living skills and develop self-confidence working toward greater independence and a more satisfying life,” according to the center’s mission statement.

Pearce said she thinks a similar center in West Virginia would help the state achieve its goal of reducing the number of children in out-of-home and out-of-state placements.

“By failing to implement services for this vulnerable population, we will continue to be stuck in this cycle we are in now and children will continue to be institutionalized,” Pearce said.

The Joint Health Committee also heard from Amy Kennedy-Rickman, state director for Necco West Virginia. She discussed challenges foster care placement agencies are facing.

Kennedy-Rickman said they are constantly trying to build their capacity because more capacity means better outcomes for the children. A big factor in their capacity is retention of families.

The biggest challenge in retention is adoption. Most families that work with Necco are foster to adopt, and once they’ve adopted a child or group of children, they no longer are willing or are just no longer capable of fostering.

Adoption also is a financial burden on the agency itself. In 2012, agencies like Necco were permitted to facilitate the adoption process; however, Kennedy-Rickman said state law was never fully updated for this. Because of that, many courts do not recognize Necco as an arm of the state and the agency must use funds to hire their own lawyers to represent them.

She said in Kentucky, agencies like Necco receive a reimbursement from the state for all adoptions, which cover many of the costs the agencies incur when doing adoptions.

Necco has facilitated 350 adoptions in the past three years. Kennedy-Rickman said she has also seen a dramatic increase in family reunifications in the past year, which the agency celebrates just as much as adoptions.