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Huntington current on pension obligation
First time in a decade the city has been caught up on payments

HUNTINGTON — For the first time in more than a decade, the city of Huntington is completely caught up on monthly firefighter and police pension plan payments.

The city's pension obligation has strained its budgets for years, looming over past administrations with the threat of municipal bankruptcy. At one point, the city was lagging seven months behind in making payments.

The city's revenues have been stagnant for some time, so as the pension payments grew, it was left with less and less each year to pay for municipal services.

Mayor Steve Williams made tackling the pension payments one of his top priorities, especially after a budgeting crisis in 2017. An error in the formula used to calculate life expectancy forced the city to come up with an additional $1.4 million to cover its pension payments.

This unexpected pension obligation, the rising cost of health insurance and overspending by the police and fire departments were cited as reasons to lay off 24 employees later that year — 17 from

the police department and seven from the fire department.

That's when Williams tasked the city's finance division with reducing expenses throughout the city to offset the pension deficit.

During an Aug. 26 City Council meeting, Assistant Finance Director Angela Shockley announced the city had completely caught up on the monthly payments and had significantly raised the net worth of the pension plans. Shockley was responding to an annual report from the state's Municipal Pensions Oversight Board of fiscal year 2018-19, which ended June 30.

"We feel very pleased we worked so hard and got ourselves out of this," Shockley said.

As of June 30, the police pension fund had a net worth of $40 million, or an 80% increase since June 30, 2013.

The fire pension fund had a net worth of $29.9 million as of June 30, an increase of 121.5% during the past six years.

Finance Director Kathy Moore said her division put together new approval processes that oversaw spending in each of the city's divisions and departments. Through this, they were able to get expenses down to a manageable level.

Council chairman Mark Bates congratulated the finance division for getting the monthly payments down to zero. For years, the city has had the outstanding payments listed on its accounts receivable reports.

"The last several months getting those zero reports has been great news," Bates said. "It means our fiscal house is in order and we are paying the bills on time."

However, the city's outlook in the firefighter and police pension systems has never been this rosy. A decade ago, the city was facing the possibility of entering receivership as the pension obligation ate up about 30% of the city's budget. Personnel costs, including health insurance and pension payments, far outweighed salaries. All told, personnel costs made up 72% of the budget, only leaving $10 million of a $38 million budget that year for public services.

Under former Mayor David Felinton, the city began looking for ways to alleviate those budget issues, seeking the state's help to remedy the situation. After repeated attempts, the West Virginia Legislature failed to take action on bills involving municipal pension reform.

It wasn't until former Mayor Kim Wolfe's administration in 2010 began meeting regularly with then-Gov. Joe Manchin that a solution was developed.

During a visit to Huntington that April, Manchin said if Huntington devised a plan that did not rely on state funding, he would place it on a special session agenda later in the year. Wolfe's administration crafted a plan by the end of that summer. Manchin held up his end of the bargain and the Legislature overwhelmingly passed municipal pension reform that November.

The new legislation gave cities the option of closing their existing retirement plans to new hires and refinancing those plans over a 40-year period to pay off their unfunded liabilities. New hires were placed in a retirement plan similar to benefits offered to emergency medical services employees across the state.

Wolfe's victory was short lived after discovering that the figures the city had used to calculate its police and fire pension contributions for fiscal years 2010 and 2011 were off. This created a budget shortfall of $4.2 million.

Travis Crum is a reporter for The Herald-Dispatch. He may be reached by phone at 304-526-2801.

New mentor program connects freshmen to upperclassmen

HUNTINGTON — As a first-year student at Marshall University two years ago, Katerina Coon stayed in her room for the majority of the first few weeks of school.

"I almost went home," she said. "I was that person who made friends with her (resident adviser)."

Now a junior accounting major, Coon is helping ensure no one ever feels alone like she did by being a peer mentor in the new Friends at Marshall, or FAM, program.

Based on a program at President Jerome Gilbert's alma mater Mississippi State University, the FAM program consists of 19 peer mentors who are each assigned about 90 freshmen.

Each freshman has an assigned peer. The upperclassmen have "office hours" each week to allow them time to meet with their mentees face to face.

Coon had office hours Monday at Dunkin, and while it was not well attended because it was a holiday, she had meetings set up for later in the week. She's also had mentees add her on social media.

"One girl wants help finding a student organization to join," Coon said. "I am going to show her the list of all the organizations available and help her find the best fit."

Brennan Amaral, a junior psychology major, said he also has one-on-one meetings set up. He said he's finding he gets a better response from his mentees when he sends them personalized messages.

Amaral said when he was a freshman, he wasn't shy about getting involved, but that doesn't mean he wouldn't have benefited from a mentor.

"From what I observed, people go home after a year because they didn't make connections," Amaral said. "... I sought out organizations, but I overdid it. I needed help with time management. I could have used someone to say, 'Are you sure you have time for all that?' Like a mentor would."

Allison Grassie, assistant director of the Office of Student Success at Marshall, said those types of personal stories are what they want the peer mentors to share with their mentees.

"It's so important to make them feel normal," she said.

Last week, the FAM program kicked

off with an event on the Memorial Student Center Plaza, and each student received a pin of two buffalo running together.

"Every person on this campus is here for each and every student," said Kateryna Schray, interim director of the Office of Student Success. "We want to get that message out to every freshman, and we do it in part by giving them a FAM pin, which symbolizes the mentoring relationship, the idea of one member of the herd looking out for another."

Gilbert said the idea for the FAM program came when he was provost at Mississippi State and the university, like Marshall currently, was looking for ways to boost retention rates.

At an accrediting body meeting, they heard about a program at King University in Tennessee that paired incoming students with an upperclassman to help them transition from high school life to college.

"They even took them on a trip to D.C. the first week of class so it was a real bonding experience," Gilbert said. "It struck me as a great idea to create a sense of belonging. Research shows one reason students drop out is they don't have a strong sense of belonging to a university. That program showed me that was a great model to implement."

So Gilbert worked to establish a similar program at Mississippi State, though it was a little different because it is a bigger university. When he left and came to Marshall, he knew it was something he wanted to start here as well.

Marshall's retention rate, which is the number of freshmen who return for sophomore year, is about 73%, which Gilbert said is not awful but he wants it to be better.

Gilbert said when looking at growing overall enrollment, the best way to do that is increase the retention, persistent and graduation rates.

He said based on his calculations, if the retention rate rose to 80% and the graduation rate increased from 47% to 60%, enrollment would increase by 1,000.

"I tell the freshman class at orientation, our goal is to have every student graduate from Marshall," he said. "It's my goal. I want every student who can graduate to graduate. I think upward of 90% can. Forty-nine percent graduate. I think we can double that. I truly believe that."

Gilbert said he hopes to expand the FAM program to include sophomores.

Follow reporter Taylor Stuck on Twitter and Facebook @TaylorStuckHD.

WV receives $35M for opioid programs

HUNTINGTON — West Virginia will receive more than $35 million from two different federal grants to address the opioid epidemic in the state, the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services announced Wednesday.

The first grant, totaling $28,027,511, was awarded by the Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration through its State Opioid Response (SOR) program.

SOR grants are federal dollars funneled to individual states that provide a flexible means for state governments to support their prevention, treatment and recovery needs as best suits their unique situations.

The second grant, totaling $7,357,388, was provided through the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention to states and local agencies to more quickly and effectively track overdose data over the next three years.

The money comes as the state's portion of more than $1.8 billion in additional funding allotted to all 50 states and U.S. territories by the federal government to expand access to treatment options and support real-time data collection, particularly for overdoses.

"Our country is seeing the first drop in overdose deaths in more than two decades, more Americans are getting treatment for addiction, and lives are being saved. At the same time, we are still far from declaring victory," HHS Secretary Alex Azar said in the department's announcement.

West Virginia's funding will be distributed through the state Department of Health and Human Services.

While there are not yet specifics for what programs will benefit through the new funding, Secretary Bill Crouch outlined a few areas of need and expressed appreciation for continued federal support.

"This additional money, as part of the State Opioid Grant, will allow additional treatment and recovery services for those suffering from a substance use disorder and will assist in expanding access to medication-assisted treatment and related services throughout our state," Crouch said.

West Virginia has been among the hardest-hit states by the opioid crisis, with its fatal overdose rate the highest in the nation. Neighboring states Ohio and Kentucky also among the states that have suffered the most from the epidemic.

Approximately 1.3 million Americans are estimated to be receiving medication treatment, out of the roughly 2 million suffering from opioid-driven substance use disorder. About 70,000 people in the U.S. died from drug overdose deaths in 2018.

By the end of 2019, HHS is expected to have granted more than $9 billion to state and local governments for opioid responses.

The state of Ohio received $64,489,104 through the SAMHSA and the CDC, while Kentucky was awarded $39,134,994. Three urban counties in Ohio received additional CDC grants: Cuyahoga ($4,411,596), Franklin ($3,974,855) and Hamilton ($5,311,920).