A1 A1
Cabell County sheriff fears what is to come as opioid crisis drains resources

CHARLESTON — Although some believe the height of the opioid crisis is behind Cabell County and Huntington, Sheriff Chuck Zerkle said Thursday he fears for what is to come after detailing the strain the opioid crisis placed on government resources.

Zerkle’s testimony was given at a Charleston trial in which the governments accuse the “Big Three” drug wholesalers — AmerisourceBergen, Cardinal Health and McKesson — of sending excessive shipments of opioids into the area for eight years, before a reduction in the number of pills shipped made users turn to illicit drugs.

The defendants point to the Drug Enforcement Administration, doctors and West Virginians’ poor health as the culprits.

At the questioning of Cabell County attorney Anthony Majestro, Zerkle — who started his career in 1985 with the Huntington branch of the West Virginia State Police before serving as Milton police chief for two years until 2015 — testified that the opioid crisis started around 2007 when Huntington doctors were flooding the county with pill prescriptions.

“It’s long from being over,” he said. “I fear for what comes for my grandchildren and the next generation. This is not about me. I’m an old guy. I’m done. What comes down the road, that’s what I worry about.”

With pills, Zerkle said there was not a large number of overdoses because people were taking pills they could trust. As heroin abuse raged, dealers started cutting it with stronger drugs like fentanyl, which caused overdoses.

From that came the overdoses and deaths. Deputies started carrying naloxone, not only for the public, but for their own protection.

“When I was a young trooper, it was a rare occurrence when I saw a dead body,” Zerkle said. “In one day, my deputies encountered four deaths. That in itself took a toll on our people.”

It makes it hard to recruit, he said.

Zerkle said opioid abuse left the jail system overwhelmed.

Since 2017, Cabell County has had a jail bill deficit of about $3.3 million, with a monthly bill of about $360,000. Cabell officials started removing people with petty property crimes and putting them in home confinement, he said, which went from 60 to 70 people to 150 to 160 today, saving about $1.4 million a year.

The crisis takes up his deputies’ time, he said, with deputies serving on a drug task force, writing grants and five more serving as school resource officers. Zerkle’s deputies must be present in courtrooms as well, which has been a strain on his staff since the crime rate exploded.

About 10% of the force are school resource officers and participate in the Handle With Care program, which helps the school know when an officer has had to go to a student’s home. Zerkle said he would like to double that number, but it’s not possible. He also wants to expand the drug unit, but those officers are taken off the road patrol, which hurts.

He is also worried about the mental health of his deputies, he said, and is applying for a grant to help, but grant money is inconsistent and they cannot rely on it.

The Cabell County Sheriff’s Department also has the sole role of serving mental hygiene warrants, which takes about 10 to 12 hours of a deputy’s time. Cabell County receives about 700 a year, more than all other West Virginia counties combined, Zerkle said.

As the county’s tax collector, Zerkle has seen the impact economically.

“We’ve got this publicity of being the opioid epicenter. This ain’t good publicity. This is bad,” he said. “If you were a major company, would you want to come (here) knowing what you look at?”

He said people are moving out of the county. The state of West Virginia owns 350 houses in Huntington alone — houses Zerkle was unable to sell on the courthouse steps after the owners fell behind on taxes.

Vacant houses lead to other crimes, such as trespassing, theft and fires.

Gretchen Callas, an attorney for AmerisourceBergen, said Zerkle ignored the prevalent meth abuse in West Virginia, which he acknowledged during his time with the Milton Police Department, and cannot connect the distributor’s role in the closed drug system to heroin abuse.

A McKesson attorney pointed to drug tracking organizations that have fueled illicit drug sales in the county for at least two decades as the cause for the opioid epidemic.

Callas said while Zerkle said the county is momentarily overwhelmed, the jail bill and crime is decreasing and the county has a surplus of $500,000, which could be allocated to the Sheriff’s Department. Zerkle had no statistics to show how many of the crimes were related to drugs, she said.

Zerkle said the surplus was for a Rainy Day Fund and there were a lot of rainy days ahead of Huntington and Cabell County. He pointed to an influx of overdoses during the COVID-19 pandemic as an example.

Dr. Lyn O’Connell, associate director of addiction sciences at Marshall Health, took the stand for about an hour Thursday to start her testimony on Huntington’s road to recovery, much of which centers around the building of programs since 2009 and destigmatizing people who suffer opioid use disorder.

Her testimony, which will continue Friday morning, is to show the resources the governments have had to put into recovery programs to fight the opioid crisis over the years.

The programs included educating youths, faith leaders and first responders of opioid use disorder, but also included preventative care programs, like the Cabell-Huntington Health Department’s harm reduction services and Huntington’s Quick Response Team. It also included Proact, a recovery hub offering a variety of services.

Before the local officials took the stand, the defense continued to seek the blockage of the testimony from James “Ralf” Rafalski, a retired diversion investigator at the DEA, from being entered into the record for the trial.

Rafalski had testified the defendants should have flagged anywhere from 20% to 99.8%, most categories showing more than 50%, of their shipments, but reported 415 of 189,100 transactions.

The defendants said Rafalski’s findings were based on the analysis of another person, which left room for human error. His report was incomplete and only focused on what the plaintiffs had asked him to find. He left out how doctors, pharmacies and manufacturers had contributed to the opioid crisis, they said.

Senior U.S. District Judge David Faber said he was shocked when Rafalski suggested 90% of the pill shipments should have been blocked in some instances, but Cabell County attorney Paul T. Farrell Jr. said the data did not necessarily mean it needed to be blocked.

“What that indicates is when the fire alarm gets pulled, it stays on until someone stops it,” he said. “He’s not suggesting those pills should be blocked — what he is saying is that with the absence of due diligence, the fire alarm stays on.”

McKesson attorney Paul Schmidt said that would only be correct if no due diligence had been done by the companies to see if the threshold rising was justified.

Faber said Rafalski’s testimony was “crucially important to the case” and asked the sides to submit written arguments for him to review.

Events, memorials planned to mark holiday weekend

HUNTINGTON — The sun is shining a little brighter this May with the return of several events to commemorate Memorial Day or enjoy the long weekend.

With COVID-19 numbers dropping and the number of vaccinated individuals rising, it’s beginning to feel like a return to normalcy. With Memorial Day weekend just around the corner, here are some events to look forward to:

In Ironton, residents can expect the Ironton-Lawrence County Memorial Day Parade to be closer to normal than the one displayed in 2020. The parade is distinguished as being the longest continuously running parade in the country, having taken place each year since 1868.

The parade will begin at 10 a.m. Monday, May 31, and will be accompanied by a military flyover around 9:40 a.m., with civilian pilots expected to fly over the parade route. The annual Catholic Charity Fair, absent last year, will be serving limited-menu meals before and after the parade as well.

The parade is one of many events scheduled in Ironton for Memorial Day weekend. On Friday, May 28, a fireworks display starts at 9 p.m. Additionally, a Civil War veterans wreath-laying event will be at 2 p.m. Saturday, and an annual wreath-laying ceremony will be held at 2 p.m. Sunday.

In Huntington on Memorial Day, the annual Community Memorial Day Celebration will commence at the Memorial Arch at 11 a.m. The event has been sponsored by the Veterans Committee for Civic Improvement and the Greater Huntington Park and Recreation District.

Highlights of the event include special guests, such as keynote speaker West Virginia Supreme Court Chief Justice Evan Jenkins, as well as speakers representing the city of Huntington, the Veterans Administration and U.S. Rep. Carol Miller, R-W.Va. Additionally, the Marine Corps League will escort memorial wreath presenters and assist in the presentation of “The Meaning of a Flag-Draped Casket.”

In addition, there are a number of events taking place during the weekend, most of them related to music. On May 28, 9th Street Live, with music provided by Of the Dell with Cutler Station, will take place from 7 to 9:30 p.m. on 9th Street in downtown Huntington. On May 29, Taps at Heritage will host the third annual Brewgrass Craft Beer and Music Festival, at Heritage Station at 210 11th St., from 1 to 5 p.m.

On May 29 in Genoa, Rustic Ravines will host an annual Memorial Day Weekend Party from 11 a.m. to 10 p.m. It will include an all-you-can-eat barbecue buffet from 5 to 9 p.m., a raffle for prizes, and live music from 5 to 10 p.m.

In addition to festive celebrations, there are ceremonies honoring both living and fallen veterans.

American Legion James E. Marshall Post 187, located in Winfield, West Virginia, will conduct three Memorial Day ceremonies Monday. The first will be conducted at the Putnam County Judicial Building at 10 a.m. The second will be conducted at Valley View Cemetery in Hurricane at 11:45 a.m. and will feature the presence of the West Virginia Gold Star Mothers. The third and final will be conducted at Haven of Rest Cemetery in Red House at 2 p.m.

American Legion Post 139, located in Milton, will conduct ceremonies at 11 sites across the area, in which they will fire three volleys and play taps to honor all deceased veterans. The procession of ceremonies will begin at 9 a.m. on Memorial Day and will conclude near 2 p.m.

The schedule of sites the Legion will visit is, in order: The raising of morning colors at the airplane along U.S. 60 in Milton at 9 a.m.; Culloden Cemetery, Culloden, at 9:15 a.m.; Brown Cemetery, Balls Gap, at 9:50 a.m.; Bicker Cemetery, Barker’s Ridge, at 10:40 a.m.; Chestnut Grove Cemetery, Dryridge, at 11 a.m.; United Baptist Church Cemetery, Dryridge, at 11:15 a.m.; Neal Cemetery, John’s Creek Road, at 11:40 a.m.; Milton Cemetery, Milton, at 11:55 a.m.; Ball Cemetery, Kilgore Creek, at 1 p.m.; Maupin Cemetery, Yates Crossing, at 1:25 p.m.; and Forest Memorial Park Cemetery at 1:45 p.m.

Though they aren’t directly related to Memorial Day, several water attractions will open on Memorial Day weekend, including the Barboursville Splash Park, the Hurricane Sprayground, St. Cloud Commons’ all-inclusive splash pad, Waves of Fun in Hurricane, Dreamland Pool and the YMCA Kennedy Center pool.

More than 400 Knights turn their tassels, marking end of high school career

HUNTINGTON — More than 400 Cabell Midland High School seniors didn’t go to Joan C. Edwards Stadium for another assignment Thursday, but they got one.

Addressing the graduating Class of 2021, Cabell County Schools Superintendent Ryan Saxe told them they must complete one more “in-person” assignment before continuing.

“Please stand and turn your tassels,” he said.

For the students, Thursday’s commencement ceremony was the end of a four-year journey full of collective ups and downs and no shortage of stories to share for years to come. From kitchen fires to the coronavirus pandemic, these students saw it all.

“The simple fact that we are having this ceremony is cause for celebration, and for that, I am eternally grateful,” senior class President AJ Messinger said in his address to classmates. “We have endured much in our four years, from the teacher strikes our freshman year, to three fires in our sophomore year, and transitioning to online schooling for parts of our junior and senior years. It is a miracle we have made it to where we are today.”

Messinger and other student speakers thanked staff and administrators for their hard work throughout their time at Cabell Midland, but spoke specifically to the efforts over the course of the past year through pandemic-related challenges, instilling a confidence in the graduating class that may not have been there before.

“We can overcome any adversity. Our class, no, our generation, has proven that we have the ability to deal with anything in the future, and we will approach it with that confidence,” said graduate Ubay Keblawi.

Of 424 graduates, 148 earned Very High Honors recognition, meaning they had GPAs of 3.85 or better. Thirty-two seniors finished with High Honors, and 34 graduated with Honors recognition.

The 2021 graduating class earned more the $4.3 million in scholarship money, including 74 Promise scholarships, representing about 20% of the class. Two students will attend Marshall University as Yeager Scholars next year, an elite, full-ride scholarship given to just eight students each year.

Other special recognitions included six individuals who will leave Cabell Midland and enlist to serve in the armed forces. Three students completed the Cabell County Distinguished Scholars program. One student was a National Merit Scholarship finalist. Collectively, the 2021 graduating class at Cabell Midland earned more scholarships to Marshall University than any other senior class in the Mountain State.

GOP offers $928B on infrastructure, funded with COVID aid

WASHINGTON — President Joe Biden on Thursday warned naysayers in Congress not to “get in the way” of his big infrastructure plans as the White House panned a counteroffer from Republican senators to tap unused COVID-19 relief for a more modest investment in roads, highways and other traditional public works projects.

After touring a manufacturing technology center at a community college in Cleveland, Biden held up a card with the names of Republicans lawmakers who had rejected his coronavirus aid bill in Washington but later promoted its assistance when they were back home in front of voters. He warned them not to play similar games as he pushes this next legislative priority in Congress.

“I’m not going to embarrass anyone, but I have here a list,” he said. “If you’re going to take credit for what we’ve done,” he continued, “don’t get in the way of what we need to do.”

The political arguments over Biden’s ambitious proposals are quickly distilling into a debate over the size and scope of what all sides agree are sorely needed upgrades to the nation’s aging and outmoded infrastructure.

As the president reaches for a soaring legislative achievement with his $1.7 trillion American Jobs Plan and a separate $1.8 trillion American Families Plan, he is assessing whether he can cut a bipartisan deal with Republicans or will have to push through his proposals with only Democrat votes.

Republican senators outlined a $928 billion infrastructure proposal Thursday as a counteroffer to Biden, drawing a fresh red line against his plans to raise the corporate tax, from 21% to 28%, to pay for new spending. Instead, the Republicans want to shift unspent COVID-19 relief dollars to help cover the costs, a nonstarter for many Democrats.

The Republican senators said their offer, raised from an initial $568 billion, delivers on “core infrastructure investments” that Biden has focused on as areas of potential agreement. With about $250 billion in new spending, the GOP plan remains far from the president’s approach. Biden reduced his $2.3 trillion opening bid to $1.7 trillion in earlier negotiations.

“It’s a serious effort to try to reach a bipartisan agreement,” said Sen. Shelley Moore Capito of West Virginia, the lead Republican negotiator.

As Biden left for Ohio, he said he called Capito to thank her for the proposal, but told her, “We have to finish this really soon.”

Biden toured Cuyahoga Community College, the same school where he was to hold a campaign rally in March 2020 only to have it be the first one canceled due to the pandemic. He cast his return as a symbol of how far the nation has come back, and he tried to make the case that passing his jobs and families plans would further the economy’s recovery and prepare it for the decades ahead.

The president said he was “not looking to punish anyone” with his tax plans. But he said it was time for America’s wealthy and corporations to help invest in the nation’s future.

“Do you want to give the wealthiest people in America another tax cut? I don’t begrudge them the money they make. Just start paying your fair share just a little bit,” Biden said.

Talks are at a crossroads before a Memorial Day deadline to make progress toward a bipartisan deal. With slim majorities in the House and Senate, the Democrat president faces other hurdles if he decides to abandon talks with Republicans and tries to unite fractious Democrats.

The Republican offer would increase spending by $91 billion on roads and bridges, $48 billion on water resources and $25 billion on airports, according to a one-page summary released by the GOP negotiators. It would provide for one-time increases in broadband investments, at $65 billion, and $22 billion on rail.

Senate Republican leader Mitch McConnell of Kentucky said on CNBC that it was time for the administration to “sober up and realize they don’t have a massive mandate in Congress to do all of the things they’re trying to do.”

White House press secretary Jen Psaki said Biden and Capito are expected to meet next week, while Congress is on a break.

The White House is also “continuing to explore other proposals that we hope will emerge,” she said. A bipartisan group of lawmakers that includes Sen. Mitt Romney, R-Utah, is also preparing an alternative plan.

Psaki made clear the administration’s concern over tapping pandemic funds.

“We are worried that major cuts in COVID relief funds could imperil pending aid to small businesses, restaurants and rural hospitals using this money to get back on their feet after the crush of the pandemic,” Psaki said in a statement.

Core differences remain between the White House and GOP negotiators over the definition of infrastructure: Republicans stick to traditional investments in roads, bridges, ports and water drinking systems, while Biden takes a more expansive view.

Under Biden’s initial proposal, there is more than $300 billion for substantial upgrades to public schools, Veterans Administration hospitals and affordable housing, along with $25 billion for new and renovated child care centers.

Biden’s proposal would spend heavily on efforts to confront climate change, with $174 billion to spur the electric vehicle market, in part by developing charging stations, and $50 billion so communities can better deal with floods, hurricanes, wildfires and other natural disasters.

One area of agreement is on boosting broadband, but the sides are apart on details. Republicans raised their initial offer to $65 billion in an earlier exchange; Biden is seeking $100 billion.

Sen. John Barrasso, R-Wyo., said the Republicans’ overall proposal reflects “what people at home in Wyoming think of is infrastructure, roads with potholes.”

The White House, still expressing public hopes for bipartisanship, welcomed the offer. At $928 billion over eight years, it features $257 billion in new money, more than the $225 billion the White House had said was in the initial Republican proposal. But it’s still far less than the White House had hoped.

Sen. Pat Toomey, R-Pa., said there is $700 billion in unspent COVID-19 aid from the American Rescue Plan, which was the administration’s $1.9 trillion response to the coronavirus crisis earlier this year.

Toomey said some of that money could fill the gap between the amount of revenue normally collected from transportation taxes and fees, and the new spending the GOP senators are proposing.

But he said the Republican negotiators have made it “very, very clear on every single time we’ve had a discussion … that we’re not raising taxes.”