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COVID-19 changes, but doesn't dim, outlook in education, jobs

COVID-19 has presented many challenges to trade skill training, which is mostly hands-on and in person, but at the Cabell County Career Technology Center, they are adapting.

They’re not the only ones.

In spite of the unique and unprecedented year we have all had, educators have found a way to continue reaching students, helping them in their lives and preparing them for their futures.

In Outlook: Education & Careers, inside today’s paper, Herald-Dispatch reporters examine how learning looks lately, from Pre-K to postgraduate studies, and what the prospects are like for those about to enter the workforce.

Today’s section kicks off four weeks of specialized content. Next Sunday, we’ll bring you Outlook: Health Care and Healthy Living.

Real estate market thrives, transportation suffers during year of stay-home orders

2020 was a year that a lot of us spent at home.

Whether the coronavirus pandemic made us want to spruce up our own houses with projects and renovations or start thinking about moving to a more spacious abode, it was a busy year for the residential real estate market both locally and nationwide.

Of course, spending so much time at home meant we didn’t do much traveling, whether by car, bus or airplane. And while that decrease in transportation had an effect on the industry, officials are hopeful for a rebound in 2021.

In Outlook: Real Estate and Transportation, inside today’s paper, Herald-Dispatch reporters examine everything from mortgage rates and why now is considered a good time to refinance or sell a home, to aviation and projects happening at the local airport.

Today’s section is the third offered during four weeks of specialized content. Next Sunday, we’ll bring you Outlook: Local Business/Finance and Industry.


Judge: Health officials can testify at Huntington, Cabell opioid trial

CHARLESTON — A federal judge will allow testimony from eight local health officials who defendants accused of fueling the opioid epidemic had tried to block.

Cabell County and Huntington are set to go to trial in May in a Charleston federal court against AmerisourceBergen Corp., McKesson and Cardinal Health — the “Big Three” drug distributors — which are accused of causing a public nuisance by blindly pumping pain pills into Appalachia, thus fueling opioid and later heroin addiction.

The lawsuits state the distributors breached their duty to monitor, detect, investigate, refuse and report suspicious orders of prescription opiates coming into the state over the past several years.

The companies had argued in January to block opinion and expert testimony by health official witnesses, all who walk the line before fact and opinion witnesses. They were interviewed without knowledge they could be experts expressing their opinion on the matter instead of just the facts because they were not informed of it by the plaintiffs, the companies argued.

The plaintiffs denied the claim and said they had disclosed the witnesses, their roles, investigations and eyewitness accounts months ago.

Much of the argument focused on blocking the testimony of Dr. Rahul Gupta, who served as the state’s drug czar from 2015-18 and as the executive director of the Kanawha-Charleston Health Department for five years before that. Last week, The Washington Post reported he is favored to lead the Office of National Drug Control Policy under President Joe Biden’s administration.

Earlier this month, Senior Judge David A. Faber ruled Gupta’s expert opinions should not be excluded at trial because the plaintiffs showed the importance of his testimony. However, the judge limited his testimony to his involvement in the events that gave rise to the litigation.

The judge ruled Gupta had not erred in not turning over an expert report, but agreed to give the defendants a second opportunity to interview Gupta about those opinions ahead of trial so they can tailor their questions toward those topics and determine if they will need a rebuttal witness.

The judge also ruled that area health officials — Christina Mullins, Dr. Michael Kilkenny, Dr. Kevin Yingling, Dr. Todd Davies, Dr. David Chaffin, Dr. Lyn O’Connell and Dr. Stephen Petrany — will be excluded from providing expert testimony, although they may still testify about facts or opinions within a limited area of their involvement in the opioid crisis.

A court hearing was held Thursday to discuss motions ahead of trial, and the judge heard about two hours of arguments surrounding the defendants’ motion to dismiss the lawsuit. They again argued that West Virginia law has never recognized a public nuisance claim in circumstances like the governments claim, arguing West Virginia nuisance law for over 100 years has been confined to cases’ involvement with use of public property or resources, not a product.

Cardinal Health attorneys argued in February that it did not matter how many pills they shipped because it is up to pharmacies to distribute them locally.

Plaintiff attorneys Anthony Majestro, Paul T. Farrell Jr., Mike Woelfel and others have held effects of the opioid crisis are far-reaching and have created a substantial interference with public health and safety, which are rights common to the general public.


Local governments to get millions in stimulus money

HUNTINGTON — It’s not just people who are waiting for a stimulus check to arrive. Counties, cities, villages and towns are all about to get a shot of stimulus money aimed at helping governments hit by the pandemic.

U.S. Sen. Joe Manchin, D-W.Va., announced recently that local governments in West Virginia will get a share of the $1.9 trillion American Rescue Plan package.

“For the first time in generations, our towns and counties are receiving direct funding to address the specific needs facing each individual community,” Manchin said.

The city of Huntington is expecting a big chunk — $44.84 million, which is the largest amount for any city in the state. Charleston is to receive $37.81 million, which is the second-largest amount.

“We have been experiencing a once-in-a-lifetime pandemic and, as a result, we have a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity. In turn, we are receiving a one-time appropriation of support from the federal government. We have one chance to get this right,” Huntington Mayor Steve Williams said. “We aggressively addressed the challenges of COVID-19 in 2020 and were able to sustain our operations without layoffs or closing for a single minute. We also provided additional financial support to our employees and their families and provided financial relief to our residents and small businesses.”

There will be restrictions on how the money is used, and according to Manchin it can be used to fill COVID-19 losses or to make investments in water, sewer and broadband infrastructure. Outside of those general guidelines there’s little guidance so far from the federal government.

“We are seeking guidance to determine the parameters set forth in the American Rescue package detailing how our appropriation can be spent,” Williams said. “Our guiding principle is for each dollar of the $44.84 million we are projected to receive from the Rescue plan, we will leverage an additional $5 of investment in our community. We expect this approach to leverage this one-time appropriation to a quarter-of-a-billion-dollar expenditure in our city. The quarter-of-a-billion-dollar investment in our city then will have an economic impact that will transform our city and region for the next five decades.”

The village of Barboursville will receive $1.77 million and already has plans to use the entire amount for the first phase of a major sewage project.

“When they said this money could be dedicated to infrastructure projects, we have a multimillion-dollar sewer project on the table anyway in respect to our sanitary sewer system,” said Mayor Chris Tatum. “The initial cost of the first phase is around $2 million, so the $1.77 (million) we are about to get will allow us to delay any current rate increases we were thinking about.”

Tatum said Barboursville currently has a lagoon-based sanitary sewer system off U.S. 60 at the Merritt Creek exit, behind the state Division of Highways location. A sewage lagoon is a large, pond-like basin into which wastewater flows for storage and treatment.

“There are not many lagoon-based systems left in the state, and the state Department of Environmental Protection is pretty interested in seeing that go by the wayside in favor of better sewer treatment options,” Tatum explained.

The new project calls for the wastewater to flow to the Pea Ridge Public Service District, according to Tautm.

“They had an expansion planned anyway, and we have had several issues at the current treatment facility, including pond wall failures,” he said. “We fix those quickly, but this new plan will allow for us to have our inflow going into an actual treatment plant. We said we can redirect our flow, put a flow meter on and pay you guys for the treatment.”

Tatum said the Barboursville Sanitary Board will still operate, with its employees taking care of the village’s infrastructure.

“We are just going to send our flow to their treatment plant,” he said. “We are also investing our own dollars into expansion so that we will have reserve capacity.”

The total cost of the project to shut down the lagoons and do environmental cleanup is expected to be around $8 million to $10 million, Tatum said.

“Closing the lagoons will run us out 18 to 36 months, so even when we take our flow and send it to Pea Ridge we still have a period of time to get the lagoons closed by DEP standards,” he said.

Tatum said after all of that is done, the property will be filled and then put on the market.

“That property is very marketable, being located right off the interstate,” he said. “We anticipate we will be able to recoup some costs for this project that way.”

Tatum said Barboursville has been in talks with state Division of Highways officials over the past few years about moving from its current location across from Tanyard Station.

“That hooks up to our 12 acres at the collection plant at the lagoons, so couple that 6 1/2 acres with our 12 acres and you got around a 20-acre parcel that is right off the interstate, right on Route 60,” he said. “It would be a desirable piece of property for retail commercial development.”

The city of Milton is getting just over a million dollars, but Mayor Tom Canterbury says city officials have not determined how they will spend it.

“Water and sewer infrastructure, as emphasized in the guidelines provided, will likely be where a large portion of this money will go,” Canterbury said. “However, the city of Milton is considering allotting some of this funding to various nonprofit organizations that would be eligible under the regulations provided.”

Smaller municipalities aren’t overlooked in the relief package. The town of Ceredo will get more than half a million dollars.

“It is my understanding that the town of Ceredo will be receiving a total of $530,000, one-half in the near future and half next fiscal year,” said Mayor Paul Billups. “Based on preliminary discussions with the Town Council, it is anticipated that we will complete one water project and one sewer project that are essentially shovel-ready during summer 2021. These projects have a combined projected cost of $175,000.”

Billups said the town has asked its water and sewer utility boards to provide information on any other immediate needs in regards to the remaining funds.

“The Town Council will continue to look at remaining or future COVID-19 losses and reimburse the appropriate accounts as necessary,” he said. “As with any small town, our utility infrastructure is aging, and these funds will hopefully allow us to maintain the integrity of our utilities without rate increases.”

Tim Bias, mayor of Kenova, which is set to receive $1.23 million, is also waiting on direction from the federal government.

“I listened to a teleconference from Senator Joe Manchin and understood they would be supplying more information on these monies and how to properly use them,” Bias said. “At this point we have some ideas on water and sewer projects, but we also need to consider other areas in the city. Hopefully in the coming weeks, we will be more informed and able to elaborate on projects.”

It is expected that the U.S. Treasury will put out rules and regulations soon.

West Virginia will receive $1.25 billion to be administered by the governor and the Legislature. Cabell County will receive $17.83 million, Wayne County will receive $7.64 million, Putnam County will receive $10.95 million and Lincoln County will receive $3.96 million, for a total of $40.4 million for the region.

Other cities and towns in the region receiving direct funding include $660,000 for the city of Wayne and $440,000 for the town of Hamlin.