A1 A1
Highlanders use commencement as springboard to future

HUNTINGTON — As Huntington High Principal Dan Gleason put it, as difficult as this year has been for students and staff alike, getting to the graduation ceremony wasn’t any different.

“As is typical for how this year has gone, it wasn’t easy to get here,” Gleason said in his opening remarks to the graduating class of 2021 who sat in front of him on the football field at Joan C. Edwards Stadium.

The ceremony was moved from Friday evening to Saturday due to forecasted rain and once again the students were forced to change directions. A graduating class that has navigated through a global pandemic since spring 2020 was the same group of 348 students who stood in a slight drizzle as they received their diplomas.

Student Body President Jonathan Shell said he was thankful for the abnormal years he and his classmates experienced as it created opportunity to find their own silver lining throughout the various challenges they faced.

“In a way, I’m thankful we never had a ‘normal’ year because it led us closer together and provided experiences none of us expected to have,” Shell said in his address to classmates. “In the future, I hope you realize that each and every one of you has the ability to change your perspective on life if you’re willing to put in the work.”

Senior Class President Jalen Nicely stood at the podium and encouraged her fellow graduates to believe they have everything it takes to face the myriad of new obstacles that will appear throughout their lives because of what they have overcome already.

“You are enough because you have proven to yourself time after time that you really are stronger than you know, more intelligent than you thought and far more loved than you will ever truly understand,” said Nicely. “I hope you leave today with more than a diploma, but with hope for what is to come.”

The 2021 graduating class at HHS was composed of 348 students, 95 of whom finished with Very High Honors recognition. Eighteen finished with High Honors, and 22 students earned an Honors designation. The class was awarded a collective $3.43 million in scholarship money and 42 W.Va. Promise Scholarships.

Twelve students were recognized as Advanced Placement Scholars for their performance on AP tests in high school, and five students were applauded for their decision to enlist in the United States Armed Forces.

County commissioners are bracing for an increase in their jail bills on July 1 even as they work with local officials and plea with state lawmakers for relief

An already unpredictable and sizeable cost for county taxpayers in West Virginia is about to take up even more of county budgets.

The daily rate to incarcerate an inmate in one of the state’s 10 regional jails increases by almost 14% on July 1.

County commissioners throughout the state learned in the spring the Legislature would not act to keep a cap on the daily rate, commonly referred to as the per diem rate, established in a 2018 law. Come July 1, the daily incarceration rate will increase from $48.25 to $54.88, based on the most recent calculations by the State Budget Office.

“I don’t know how some of these counties are going to survive this situation,” said Logan County Commission President Danny Godby. “It’s gotten to be a point to where all you’re going to be able to do is keep the offices open and not provide any activity for the general public ... I don’t know what’s going to happen.”

The per diem has been artificially flat since the 2018 law that overhauled the administrative structure of the Division of Corrections and Rehabilitation and the West Virginia Department of Homeland Security, which at the time was called the Department of Military Affairs and Public Safety.

In that law, the legislature capped the per diem at $48.25 and required the State Budget Office to annually calculate the actual cost of incarcerating one person for one day in a regional jail.

In January, House Speaker Roger Hanshaw, R-Clay, said lawmakers had to do something about increasing jail bills.

“The county jail bill situation is a noose around the neck of every county in West Virginia,” the speaker said during the 2021 Legislative Lookahead hosted by the West Virginia Press Association.

State lawmakers advanced no bills dealing with the per diem rate.

That wasn’t welcome news in Logan County.

“The day that we found out that the per diem was going up was the day that we passed our budget,” Adkins said. “Five minutes before our meeting to pass our budget for this year, we were informed that the rule that kept it from [increasing] had sunset.”

As a result, the actual cost automatically kicks in for counties, the sole government entities responsible for paying the per diem rate. The state begins paying for inmates once they have been convicted of a crime.

Kanawha County Commission President Kent Carper said it is frustrating that county taxpayers carry almost the full load of paying jail bills when municipal and state police arrest the majority of the people held in regional jails.

With decreasing population and tax revenues, municipalities are no better suited than counties to pay the jail bills, he said. “I’m not going to pick on them. They can’t pay it.”

“I understand somebody has got to pay the jail bill. I get that,” Carper said. “Should county government have some of the responsibly? Of course, but under this system county commissions pay it all.”

During the six-month period from October to March, Kanawha County’s jail bills, which were the highest in the state during that period, totaled $1,571,213, based on calculations from quarterly billings provided to the Charleston Gazette Mail from the state Department of Homeland Security.

That’s equal to 32,564 inmate days in regional jails.

With the incoming rate, that many inmate days would cost Kanawha County $1,787,112.32, adding more than $200,000 to the bill.

Wirt County had the lowest jail bills during the same period at $5,693.50. Wirt County Commission President Teresa Murray did not respond to an email requesting comment for this story.

The total cost of jail bills for West Virginia’s 55 counties from October to March was $22,091,455.50.

Under the new rate, that would increase to $25,127,027.50 for the same number of inmate days.

In Logan County, Godby said, it’s difficult for commissioners to make reliable budget projections because there’s no way to know how many people will be incarcerated.

During the same six-month period in 2020 and 2021, Logan, which had the 10th highest jail bill in the state during that time, was billed $734,509.75 for a total of 15,223 inmate days. That same number of inmates will cost Logan County $835,438.24 under the new rate.

Logan County was $589,905 behind on its jail bill at the start of the 2021 fiscal year, which began July 1, 2020, according to information provided by the Department of Homeland Security.

As of May 24, Logan County Administrator Roscoe Adkins said, the county commission was nearly up-to-date on those back payments.

Still, that did not ease Godby’s concerns.

“This has been our biggest problem originating in our counties,” Godby said. “I take pride in being able to help kids and kids’ programs and our seniors. We have really been unable to do some things that we once were because of the jail issue.”

Carper likewise was frustrated over having to dedicate so much money to the jail bill in the face of other pressing needs.

“Take $4 million or $5 million over 10 years, and that’s $40 million or $50 million,” Carper said. “We pay the jail bill, yet we could’ve done water projects, sewer projects, things like that, dealing with mental illness, helping those that are housing insecure — all of that and more.”

In Webster County, which tops all counties with a past-due jail bill of more than $2.7 million, “We live year-to-year,” commission President Dale Hall said.

“We can’t give employees raises,” he said. “We’ve got 25-year employees making $24,000 a year. It’s not right. We can’t give raises because we’ve got this big jail bill. It’s frustrating.”

Including Webster and Logan, 12 counties and one municipality, Huntington, were 90 days’ past due on their jail bills, according to information provided by the Department of Homeland Security.

The other counties with bills past due were Braxton, Calhoun, Clay, Hampshire, Lincoln, Marshall, McDowell, Monroe, Tyler and Upshur.

Webster was the highest, and Tyler County was the lowest at $48 past due.

The Division of Corrections and Rehabilitation foots the difference when counties can’t pay.

“We have had meetings with the prosecuting attorney, the sheriff and the magistrates,” Godby said of efforts to lower the jail bill in Logan County. “One of our biggest problems here is the bound-over people that are in jails. With that per diem per day, we were looking for faster ways, faster trials … not to let (defendants) out, but to get them to trial quicker and alleviate this big problem.”

In Kanawha County, Carper said, he stays out of the court’s business and instead focuses his efforts on lobbying at the state level, saying he supports bond reforms, getting rid of cash bonds and establishing the means for 24-hour arraignment so counties don’t have to pay a full day’s rate for people who only spend a few hours in jail between their arrest and arraignment in jails that already are overcrowded.

On Friday, 5,461 inmates were being held in 10 regional jails, which are equipped with 4,265 beds, according to COVID-19 data the Division of Corrections and Rehabilitation provides to the Department of Health and Human Resources.

“We’ve got some very violent offenders in jail, and we’ve got some in there that never should have been put in there to begin with,” Carper said.

This month, Hall said, money the commission set aside to pay on its jail bill likely will pay for repairs to a faulty air conditioning unit.

“We’ve got to keep the employees cool,” he said.

Summer travel forecast calls for longer waits, fewer choices

After a year of coronavirus lockdowns, the start of summer beckons with vacation plans made possible by relaxed COVID-19 restrictions. But a severe worker shortage brings a warning for travelers: Expect delays and pack a little patience.

Lifeguards and hotel housekeepers are in short supply. So are rental cars. And don’t count on having a fruity cocktail at the hotel Tiki bar.

The labor shortage is hitting the nation’s tourist destinations just as they try to rebound from a year lost to the pandemic, where periodic surges in cases and lockdowns had Americans sticking close to home. Now, with more than half of adults vaccinated, Americans are ready to venture out with the traditional start of summer travel.

But the staffing issues threaten to derail the travel industry’s recovery. Travelers can expect fewer menu choices at restaurants, lengthy check-in lines at hotels and airports, and fewer rides and food stands at theme parks.

Some hotels aren’t filling all of their rooms or changing the sheets as often because they don’t have enough housekeepers. Six of the most popular national parks — including Yosemite, Rocky Mountain, Acadia and Zion — will require advance reservations for many visitors to allow for social distancing.

“This is nothing like we’ve ever seen before,” said Michelle Woodhull, president of Charming Inns, which includes four small hotels and a fine dining restaurant in Charleston, South Carolina.

The company has limited room reservations by 20% during some weeks and reduced seating at the restaurant, said Woodhull, who recently fielded a complaint from a customer who couldn’t get a table for four weeks.

“Unfortunately, that is a reality,” she said, adding that it’s better than delivering poor service. “What business wants to turn away business, especially after the year we’ve had?”

Still, the tourism industry is showing signs of coming back. Airline executives say domestic leisure travel is at pre-pandemic levels, and the number of people passing through U.S. airports daily is likely to top 2 million before the week is over — the first time that has happened since early March 2020.

Air travelers planning to rent a car during the Memorial Day weekend might be out of luck. Rental cars are scarce, and they are pricey — the average cost has roughly doubled from a year ago, according to government figures.

The AAA auto club forecasts that 37 million Americans will travel at least 50 miles from home over the upcoming holiday, a 60% increase over last year. But if AAA is right about this weekend, that will mean 6 million fewer people traveling than over the same holiday in 2019.

The reasons behind the worker shortage are hotly debated. Many employers blame the federal government’s extra $300-per-week in unemployment aid. But plenty of hospitality workers who abruptly lost their jobs a year ago have moved on to new careers and aren’t coming back.

Some employers in the hospitality industry want to hire new workers at lower wages instead of recalling laid-off employees, said D. Taylor, president of the hotel, gaming and airport workers union Unite Here.

Big hotel chains are considering eliminating housekeeping and guest-services jobs, and casinos are moving to cut jobs in food and beverage, he told a congressional subcommittee this week.

“That’s bad for customers, but it’s also bad for workers and communities because housekeepers, cooks, servers — that’s the backbone of the service economy,” Taylor said.

A survey of 4,000 travel and tourism workers earlier this year showed that many found jobs with higher pay and predictable schedules and more plan on leaving the industry soon, said Peter Ricci, director of Florida Atlantic University’s hospitality and tourism management program.

The travel sector as a whole, he said, faces a moment of change and will need to offer better wages and benefits and rethink how it treats employees.

“It’s time for our industry to wake up and see that’s an important thing. We have a shortage for a reason,” said Cathy Balestriere, general manager of Crane’s Beach House, a boutique hotel in Delray Beach, Florida.

She has managed to keep most of her staff and brought in outside workers to provide massages and yoga, but the hotel is not offering breakfast, and the poolside Tiki bar is closed because there’s no one to serve drinks. Managers and maintenance staff have pitched in with housekeeping duties.

Maine’s biggest amusement park, Funtown Splashtown USA, which opens Memorial Day weekend, is scaling back hours and operating only five days a week because it cannot find enough workers.

The park in Saco, Maine, still needs lifeguards, ride operators and cleanup crews despite offering wage increases and four season passes for summer hires. The reduced number of international students is another problem for the largest seasonal employer in the state.

Raj Kapoor, who manages a popular food court on the Belmar, New Jersey, oceanfront, has hired 14 people for the summer, but he could still use eight to 10 more to scoop ice cream, roll burritos and sell sodas, milkshakes and candy.

The labor shortage has affected his business in other, less obvious ways. A shipment of soda that was promised the next day took a week and a half to arrive because the distributor did not have enough delivery drivers.

Diners in tourist hot spots shouldn’t be surprised when they find restaurants with limited hours, streamlined menus and some seating sections closed, even when there’s a wait for tables, said Barry Gutin, co-owner of the Cuba Libre restaurant chain on the East Coast.

To attract workers and help them get ahead, they’ve raised wages and gone as far as offering English and Spanish language courses and personal finance training. But hiring has still been a challenge. Their location in Fort Lauderdale, Florida, is only open for dinner right now — not even for takeout or delivery.

“We’re protecting the guest experience by not over-seating,” he said. “We’re hoping they understand things are a little different than pre-pandemic.”

Regardless of destination, travelers should make sure to call ahead and be ready to change plans at a moment’s notice.

Jamie Goble had been set to fly to Ohio from her home in Waco, Texas, to join her family for three days next week at Cedar Point amusement park, where they planned to celebrate her nephew’s high school graduation.

But nine days before her flight, the park announced last week that it would be closed two days a week for most of the month because of staffing shortages.

“Not just the park, the hotel too,” she said. “So we were out of a place to stay. It’s all understandable, but we thought they had things figured out.”

Instead, they quickly shifted plans to ride roller coasters at Dollywood in Tennessee and go hiking at Great Smoky Mountains National Park.