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Cabell agencies seek continued tax support

HUNTINGTON — In addition to choosing candidates for more than a dozen elected positions, Cabell County voters will be asked to make a five-year, $30 million decision that will impact ambulance and fire service, along with public health, senior citizen and transit needs.

The vote pertains to continuation of the county's excess levy that will appear as voters cast their ballots Tuesday, June 9, during West Virginia's primary election.

If approved by voters, those levies will continue to yield tax support for Cabell County Emergency Medical Services, the Cabell-Huntington Health Department, the Tri-State Transit Authority, fire protection services and training, Green Acres Regional Center and Autism Services Center, and Cabell County senior citizens projects and programs.

The levy rates for each of those are calculated against the assessed value of each homeowner's property. County officials say levy amounts are unchanged from the current levy, which was passed in 2016 and expires June 30, 2022. If approved, those levies would continue for another five years.

The EMS levy is one of six on the nonpartisan ballot where voters can mark either "for the levy" or "against the levy."

Cabell County EMS Director Gordon Merry said the levy has been presented to and approved by Cabell County voters since 1982. If the levy does not pass, it would create a lot of hardships for the people trying to provide the service.

Amid the COVID-19 epidemic, the county's EMS have proven their importance and supporting them with the levy is a way to say thank you, he said.

"The hospital, everyone is low on volume, our volume is cut back," he said. "Absolutely this levy is a big contributing factor to our budget."

A separate levy to support the TTA also is on the ballot for Huntington residents to vote on in the June 9 primary. That continuation levy is 7 cents per $100 valuation and would cost the owner of a $100,000 home about $42 per year.

Huntington residents get to vote on two TTA levies because when the transit service was launched in the 1970s, both the city of Huntington and Cabell County funded the public transportation system with funds from their general budgets. However, in the early 1980s, the two bodies decided they could not fund it from general funds, and left it to the voters to decide if they wanted to fund public transportation. It has been supported by levy ever since.

Paul Davis, CEO and general manager of TTA, previously said ridership has continued amid the pandemic as people travel to stores and their essential jobs. The fact that so many people continue to rely on bus service amid the pandemic underscores the importance of continuing its levy, he said.

For a Huntington resident, the Cabell-Huntington Health Department levy is a little more than 1% of a the total real estate tax bill, but the money it yields equates to nearly 50% of the health department's budget. Without that money, residents would see a drastic drop in services and would have to begin paying for free services like restaurant licenses and flu shots.

The Green Acres Regional Center provides a comprehensive continuum of services and support for skill development to assist developmentally disabled adults in Cabell, Mason, Lincoln and Wayne counties.

Autism Services Center is a nonprofit, licensed behavioral health center specializing in autism to provide services in Cabell, Wayne, Lincoln and Mason counties to all individuals with intellectual and developmental disabilities.

The fire protection levy supports volunteer fire departments in the county, including training. The Cabell County Senior Citizens projects and programs levy is less than a quarter percent of a typical homeowner's tax bill.

Indoor shopping malls added to West Virginia's Thursday business reopenings

CHARLESTON — The Huntington Mall will reopen Thursday after Gov. Jim Justice on Monday gave the green light by adding indoor malls to Week 4 of his Comeback plan.

The mall will resume normal operating hours Thursday,  May 21, though individual stores may operate under different hours. According to a release, throughout the mall, best practices will be used regarding social distancing and there will be an emphasis on cleaning, especially in high-traffic areas. Physical barriers and signage will be placed throughout to encourage physical distancing.

Many of the mall’s retailers will also soon be offering “Mall To Go” curbside pickup at designated mall entrances by calling a store in advance to place orders.

Malls join large retailers, indoor seating at restaurants and outdoor recreation rentals among those reopening just before Memorial Day weekend. 

Justice announced "Week 5" of his comeback plan will begin Tuesday, May 26. State park cabins and lodges can reopen only to state residents. Bars can reopen at 50% capacity like restaurants. Zoos, museums and welcome centers can reopen as well.

Spas and massage businesses can reopen Saturday, May 30, as well as limited video lottery establishments. Casinos will reopen Friday, June 5.

"Just be super careful in all that you do and we will be fine," Justice said, later requesting people please wear a mask when in public.

Dr. Clay Marsh, state coronavirus czar, said the reopenings, especially of activities that make a "pleasurable life," have potential to bring about a second wave of COVID-19 cases. He said it was important to continue to take physical distancing seriously and to wear a mask or facing covering when in public.

"If we all wear a mask, we protect each other, and if other people are wearing them they protect us," he said. "...I want West Virginia to take note of that."

Department of Health and Human Resources Secretary Bill Crouch provided an update on testing at assisted-living facilities and day care facilities, as well as the targeted, free testing that took place in four counties over the weekend. 

As of 9 a.m. Monday, 69 of the 94 assisted living and care community facilities in the state had reported their testing effort. Of those, 52 facilities (75%) have reported that they starting testing, with 15 more noting their testing would begin by Friday. Thirty-eight (55%) reported completing testing and 16 facilities reported receiving all results.

Four assisted living facilities reported cases of COVID-19 in staff (5 cases) or residents (1 case):

  • In two facilities, a single staff member tested positive.
  • In one facility, a single resident tested positive.
  • In a previously identified outbreak, a facility reported three staff who tested positive, with only one staff member still in isolation.

Thirty-eight percent of the 37 child care facilities operating in the state have completed testing of 587 staff members. Three have been found positive.

Crouch said free testing in Berkeley, Jefferson, Mercer and Raleigh counties resulted in 2,388 tests taken. Though the testing is open to all, it is part of a plan developed by a task force focused on COVID-19 disproportionately effecting the black and other minority populations in the state. The free testing will take place in Cabell and Kanawha counties this Friday and Saturday at locations that will be announced in the coming days. 

Justice said outreach and messaging about the testing needs to be increased to continue to increase turnout. Crouch said the task force will be increasingly helpful in getting the message to the vulnerable communities going forward. 

The 68th death, a 86-year-old female from Kanawha County, was reported Monday. 

Twelve new positive cases were reported Monday, bringing the total to 1,502, and there were 2,270 new lab results for COVID-19 received by the state. A little more than 4% of the population has been tested and 61% of all cases have recovered.

Total confirmed cases by county: Barbour (seven), Berkeley (215), Boone (nine), Braxton (two), Brooke (three), Cabell (56), Calhoun (two), Clay (two), Fayette (38), Gilmer (eight), Grant (six), Greenbrier (nine), Hampshire (12), Hancock (12), Hardy (31), Harrison (35), Jackson (135), Jefferson (101), Kanawha (203), Lewis (five), Lincoln (five), Logan (15), Marion (48), Marshall (25), Mason (15), McDowell (six), Mercer (13), Mineral (29), Mingo (three), Monongalia (116), Monroe (six), Morgan (17), Nicholas (nine), Ohio (37), Pendleton (five), Pleasants (two), Pocahontas (eight), Preston (15), Putnam (29), Raleigh (12), Randolph (seven), Ritchie (one), Roane (nine), Summers (one), Taylor (eight), Tucker (four), Tyler (three), Upshur (six), Wayne (96), Wetzel (seven), Wirt (three), Wood (48), Wyoming (three).

In Ohio, Gov. Mike DeWine responded to reports that some businesses in Ohio were not following the guidelines set by the state to reopen. Social media posts over the weekend showed some crowded bars. DeWine said the state is marshaling all the resources at its disposal to assemble a large contingent of law enforcement and health officials from across state agencies and from local communities to do compliance checks at crowded bars and restaurants.

"They will issue administrative citations that could result in the revocation of liquor licenses," DeWine said. "Further, we will work with municipal prosecutors to take potential criminal actions against these bad actors."

There were 531 new positive cases of COVID-19 reported Monday in Ohio, for a total of 28,454, and 32 new deaths for a total of 1,657.

In Kentucky, Gov. Andy Beshear announced the state contact tracing program was expanding thanks to federal funding and will continue over the next seven months. The program will work with confirmed patients to trace who they had come in contact with, such as co-workers, and those people will be contacted. The identity of the patient will be kept confidential. 

There were 138 new positive cases reported in Kentucky on Monday, bringing the total to 7,935, and nine new deaths for a total of 346.

Ohio's Amy Acton inspires admiration, and a backlash, with tough coronavirus response

It was a sunny spring day in the Ohio suburb of Bexley. Along streets lined with old-growth sycamores and maples, residents were out cutting the grass. Children were playing in the front lawns. Then the men with the guns showed up.

“We don’t see people in our neighborhood wearing full military outfits, armed with handguns,” said Tim Madison, a lawyer and former city council member. “It was shocking, to say the least.”

But Madison knew why they were there: for his next-door neighbor, Amy Acton.

An obscure state official only months ago, Acton has become a white-coated emblem of her state’s forceful coronavirus response. To her legions of fans, she’s a hero whose aggressive action as Ohio health director has saved lives, and whose calm, clear and compassionate style is a national model for how leaders should be communicating amid an unparalleled public health crisis.

Yet Acton has also become a target, and not only for the protesters — some armed, most not — who have descended on her home.

One Republican state representative denounced the 54-year-old doctor as a “medical dictator.” And the GOP-dominated Ohio House recently voted to strip much of her power, with members agitating against the widespread closures that have brought the state crushing economic pain.

The backlash against Acton reflects a broader rebuke of the medical advisers who are counseling caution as the nation enters its third month since coronavirus shutdowns kicked off. Although polls show that most Americans remain willing to accept the trade-offs that experts say are necessary to curb the virus’s spread, demonstrators, lawmakers and top officials — not least the president — have been far less patient.

Legislators in Pennsylvania recently led a capitol-steps protest demanding the resignation of the state health secretary. In Wisconsin, the GOP-dominated legislature filed suit against the governor’s health advisers, prompting the state supreme court to strike down stay-at-home orders — and thirsty patrons to throng suddenly reopened bars.

At the national level, senators have undercut infectious disease point man Anthony Fauci — as has the president he serves — after Fauci admonished against a “cavalier” attitude toward reopening the economy.

“I’m a scientist, a physician and a public health official. I give advice, according to the best scientific evidence,” Fauci replied last week after Sen. Rand Paul, R-Ky., told him he was not the “end all.”

Trump was displeased. “He wants to play all sides of the equation,” the president complained when asked about Fauci’s warnings. The president said Fauci’s reservations about reopening schools were, in particular, “not an acceptable answer.”

By contrast, Ohio’s Republican governor, Mike DeWine, has stood by his top medical adviser. Acton, DeWine has said in response to attacks from members of his own party, is “a good, compassionate and honorable person” who has “worked nonstop to save lives and protect her fellow citizens.”

He has also insisted that protesters and other critics target him, not her. “The buck stops with me,” DeWine said this month as demonstrators were unsettling Acton’s Bexley neighbors. “These decisions are my decisions.”

Acton’s influence, however, has been undeniable.

With Acton at his side, DeWine led the nation in shutting down sources of COVID-19 spread, including large gatherings, schools and restaurants. His handling of the crisis has been hailed as a model by public health experts, and it has won approval from an astonishing 86% of Ohioans. The state has over 27,000 coronavirus cases, around half the total of its smaller neighbor, Michigan.

At their regular news conferences, the governor has often yielded the floor to Acton and allowed her to explain the finer points of medical knowledge about the coronavirus. She has also taken on much of the emotional hand-holding.

“I don’t want you to be afraid. I am not afraid. I am determined,” she said on the March day that she issued the state’s stay-at-home order. “I want you to think about the fact that this is our one shot in this country. All of us are going to have to sacrifice.”

Her quotes have been emblazoned on T-shirts and coffee mugs, and a Facebook fan club has more than 130,000 members. A popular Internet meme in Ohio includes a photo of Acton in her signature outfit, along with the caption: “Not all heroes where capes. Mine wears a white coat.”

Those who have known Acton for decades say they are not surprised. She grew up poor in blue-collar Youngstown, living one winter out of a tent and surviving abuse. The chance to attend Northeast Ohio Medical University was her ticket out of that life and on to a 30-plus-year career in medical practice and policy, culminating in DeWine’s selection of her for the medical director job last year. But she retained her ability to empathize.

“She was always able to connect with people, and we see that now especially,” said Rochelle Rosian, a classmate who is now a Cleveland Clinic doctor. “She’s educating Ohioans, knowing that knowledge is power.”

Not everyone, of course, has appreciated her advice. The protesters at her home in Bexley, a suburb of Columbus, have numbered in the dozens out of a state of nearly 12 million. But they have attracted widespread attention with their aggressive tactics, breaking the calm of a peaceful neighborhood with bullhorn-amplified invective.

Some slogans have been tame: “Dr. Amy Over-Re-Acton” and “Hairstylists are Essential.” But much of the rhetoric has been anti-Semitic and sexist, said Madison, the next-door neighbor. (Acton is Jewish.)

Neighbors have responded by planting “Dr. Amy Acton Fan Club” yard signs and by sitting in Acton’s lawn in a show of solidarity whenever the protesters come around. The two sides have repeatedly squared off — one socially distanced and wearing masks, the other massed together and not.

“It’s really bizarre,” Madison said. “We just sit there silently. They’re screaming and yelling. It’s terrible.”

Madison said he believes the protesters first demonstrate at the nearby capitol before shifting to Acton’s house.

But the health director’s critics are well represented within the statehouse, as well as outside. Republican State Rep. Nino Vitale has frequently derided Acton as a “dictator” as well as “an unelected, globalist health director.”

The Republican majority in the House passed legislation this month — with no Democratic support — that would dramatically curtail Acton’s authority, effectively nullifying her orders if they are not endorsed by a legislative panel.

The legislation is considered unlikely to pass in the Ohio Senate, and DeWine has said he would veto it even if it does. But Republican legislators said they would continue to press to limit Acton’s reach.

“Unbridled power with no oversight or accountability is a recipe for economic calamity and a loss of freedom,” said Republican Rep. Derek Merrin, who voted for the measure and supports allowing all Ohio businesses to immediately reopen. “That’s what we have in Ohio.”

Merrin described Acton — a registered Democrat who campaigned for Barack Obama — as a negative influence on the state’s GOP governor. She has flip-flopped on questions such as whether to recommend that Ohioans wear masks, he said, and has promoted models that exaggerate the virus’s toll.

Allies of Acton, who declined an interview request for this story, say the only reason those dire forecasts have not come true is that the state acted preemptively to head off the worst of the virus’s effects.

“She’s done phenomenally well,” said Rep. Emilia Sykes, who leads Democrats in the Ohio House.

Sykes has a degree in public health but said the legislature should have no business telling a medical expert how to do her job in the midst of a crisis. “It is a grossly negligent act to think that 10 legislators are better situated to decide,” she said.

Sykes said she believes much of the criticism of Acton stems from sexism: The men who dominate in Ohio politics, she said, are uncomfortable with a woman wielding so much power. “If you worked with the people I work with, you would understand exactly what I mean,” she said. “It’s very clear that female leadership is not as respected.”

Merrin described that idea as “ridiculous.”

DeWine announced Thursday that much of Ohio’s economy will reopen by the end of the month, including pools, day-care centers, gyms and sports leagues. That’s despite the fact that cases in Ohio have plateaued, not dropped as DeWine had said he wanted before a wide-scale reopening.

Sykes said she worries that DeWine let the political pressure get to him and relaxed restrictions before it was time. “There are a lot of people rooting for the governor,” she said. “But we’re very concerned about what happens next.”

Acton is apparently one of them. While she stood by DeWine for Thursday’s announcement, and endorsed it, she was careful to note that the success or failure of the state’s reopening will depend largely on how people respond. She encouraged Ohio citizens to continue to respect social distancing and to proceed “carefully,” recognizing that the threat remains.

“Each and every one of us should be judicious,” she said. “We have choices to make.”

Lawrence County anticipates 25% drop in revenue

IRONTON — Lawrence County is looking at a possible 25% drop in revenue, due to the COVID-19 pandemic, that could lead to cuts in services later this year.

“The county’s No. 1 source of revenues for the general operations of the county is the sales tax,” said Commissioner DeAnna Holliday. “With so many businesses closed, we know there will be a loss from this important revenue source.”

The county receives a half-percent of all sales taxes, but there is a three-month delay in the county receiving those revenues from the state, said Chris Kline, deputy county auditor. Sales taxes collected in March, for example, won’t be known until June, he said.

“Hopefully we can get funds from the federal government,” Kline said.

Congress was scheduled to take up a $3 trillion bill recently for issues including revenues to states and some local governments.

“With so many people unemployed, and many (car and truck) dealerships closed for several weeks, those sales are bound to drop dramatically,” Holliday said.

One of the biggest concerns is a drop in sales taxes on automobile sales, Kline said.

“We get from one-third to one-half of our revenues from that,” he said.

“The county also receives state revenue sharing based upon collection of state sales tax and state income taxes,” Holliday said.

As those revenues fall, so will the county’s share, she said.

In addition, the county receives a portion of the state’s casino tax, she said.

“Those dollars are used to pay for some county capital improvement needs and debt on previous capital improvement projects,” Holliday added. “Those losses will cause the county to postpone capital needs and possibly look for other sources of revenue to pay debt if the closures continue.”

Due to stay-at-home regulations, there will be less money spent on gasoline taxes. That, in turn, will mean less money available for road paving projects, Holliday said.

“Right now, the county does not have hard numbers due to the timing of the revenue reporting,” Holliday said.

The best estimate is about a 25% drop in revenues, she said.

“The various county offices have been asked to look at what each of their offices would look like if those types of cuts would have to be made,” she said.

At this time, no one has been asked to put those plans in action, Holliday said.

“The situation will continue to be closely monitored until real numbers are available and a good, fact-based decision can be made,” she said.