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HUNTINGTON - The start of 2016 promised for planned endings and new beginnings, but with historic flooding and crippling budget deficits in Charleston, West Virginia citizens found themselves facing challenges they hadn't expected to deal with.

Between eight and 10 inches of rain fell in areas of West Virginia on Thursday, June 23, leading to the seventh deadliest flood in state history.

Gov. Earl Ray Tomblin estimated 3,000 homes were damaged or destroyed in the flood that claimed the lives of 23 people.

Tomblin declared a state of emergency in 44 of the state's 55 counties, and 400 members of the West Virginia National Guard were deployed throughout the state.

On June 25, President Barack Obama declared the state a major disaster area and ordered aid to flood victims in Kanawha, Greenbrier, Nicholas, Fayette, Monroe, Roane and Summers counties.

Although the flood was unprecedented, West Virginians from all corners of the state worked to help neighbors and fellow Mountaineers rebuild their lives and find balance amid the chaos left behind. Donations and droves of volunteers poured into the hardest-hit areas in the sweltering summer days that followed the flood.

As of the end of October 2016, the Federal Emergency Management Agency Individuals and Households program had approved more than $41.5 million in grants to 4,294 West Virginia applicants. FEMA's Public Assistance Program had obligated more than $53 million for infrastructure repairs and restoration.

West Virginia lawmakers said earlier this month that the state was receiving $87 million more from the Department of Housing and Urban Development's Community Development Block Grant-Disaster Recovery program.

Additionally, the U.S. Small Business Administration had approved 777 loans to 705 homeowners and renters and 70 businesses of all sizes totaling more than $50 million. The National Flood Insurance Program approved more than 955 claims for more than $32 million.

Huntington flood kills one

Later this summer, flash flooding south of Huntington killed one woman and flooded much of W.Va. 10 from the Green Valley Road neighborhood to Huntington's Southside on July 15. Water from Fourpole Creek also flooded much of Ritter Park and the Enslow Park neighborhood.

State budget crisis

On June 14, the GOP-led West Virginia Legislature approved a budget for fiscal year 2017 on the 17th day of a special legislative session called by Tomblin, who approved the bill June 17.

The $4 billion budget included an estimated $98 million in revenue from an increase in the state's tobacco tax and a $70 million withdrawal from the state's de facto savings account, the Rainy Day Fund, to close a $270 million budget gap.

The legislature began the special session May 16, and it was estimated to have cost taxpayers a little less than $600,000 at a cost of $35,000 per day.

Funding for the Promise Scholarship and higher education were among areas spared from cuts.

The debate about the budget and the tobacco tax increase led members of both parties to accuse one another of causing the budget stalemate, which all agreed was caused by lower-than-expected revenue in the energy sector, saying one side or the other was averse to new taxes or to making cuts. Legislators also accused one another of putting politics above policy-making five months ahead of the general election.

The legislature passed a budget June 2 that was vetoed by the governor June 8. Legislators returned to Charleston on June 11 to restart the budget process that culminated June 14 with passage in both chambers.

Overdoses up, deaths down in Cabell County

The region's struggle with the ongoing opioid epidemic continued in 2016. Huntington led many communities in implementing new programs, ranging from needle exchanges to expanded drug courts and treatment efforts to combat pain pill and heroin addictions.

Despite a good start to the beginning of the year, overdoses in Cabell County ended up higher than 2015, though overdose deaths were down. Final totals will not be available until after the new year.

But a one-day explosion of overdoses underscored the scope of the problem.

The calls began flooding the 911 center just after 3 p.m. Aug. 15 and didn't stop for hours. By 9 p.m. that day, 28 people had overdosed in Huntington, in and around Marcum Terrace; 26 of them were saved.

One man died at the hospital that night, and another was found dead and alone days later.

The especially toxic batch of heroin, later found to have been mixed with fentanyl and an elephant sedative, was tracked to alleged dealer Bruce Griggs, 22, of Akron, Ohio, who was arrested Aug. 26.

Meanwhile, Huntington's noted peer-based drug treatment program - Recovery Point of West Virginia - continued to expand across the state, acquiring HER Place and opening its first facility for women in South Charleston. The Bluefield facility also expanded, and the process to open a facility in Parkersburg began.

Justice wins race for governor

Billionaire businessman Jim Justice will become the 36th governor of West Virginia, a critical split-ticket win for Democrats in a state where Republican President-elect Donald Trump cruised to victory.

Justice, a coal and agriculture magnate, defeated Republican state Senate President Bill Cole on Nov. 8, earning 350,408 votes to Cole's 301,987, according to unofficial results from the West Virginia Secretary of State's Office.

Despite the historically Democratic state's quick shift to the Republican side, the GOP now has gone two decades without winning the West Virginia governor's race.

Pro-business initiatives

The new Republican majority in the West Virginia House and Senate engineered several new efforts in 2016 designed to make the Mountain State more business friendly.

Leaders moved quickly to pass a "right to work" bill, which prohibits companies from requiring employees to pay union dues as a condition of employment as part of new collective bargaining agreements. The bill was introduced on the first day of the session, passed both houses and was sent to Gov. Earl Ray Tomblin by Feb. 8. Tomblin vetoed the measure, but lawmakers overrode the veto the next day. Although the law went into effect in July, a judge granted a temporary injunction to unions in August, and that legal challenge is expected to continue into 2017.

The legislature also repealed the state's prevailing wage law, which set up minimum wage requirements for state projects. Combined with other legal reforms, the changes helped keep the Mountain State off the "Judicial Hellhole" report for the second year in a row, an indication national business interests are looking more favorably on the state's business climate.

But in the short term, the economic news was mostly bad with high unemployment and continued job losses in the coal sector. In December, new census figures showed the state had lost 10,000 residents over the year and 23,000 since 2000 - the biggest population deficit of any state for that period.

Huntington is a finalist in the ABC8 competition

A competition that has spanned more than two years will come to a close in 2017.

The city of Huntington has entered the final leg of the America's Best Communities competition.

As part of the competition, Huntington leaders developed a revitalization plan, also known as the Huntington Innovation Project, or HIP, which outlines four projects and ideas aimed at jump-starting the local economy and enhancing the quality of life.

It focuses on transforming struggling neighborhoods and blighted spaces into hubs for advanced making and manufacturing. The plan focuses on three key initiatives in the Highlawn, Fairfield and West End neighborhoods and how they can be linked with high-speed broadband.

During a summit in April, Huntington was chosen as one of eight communities to advance to the final round of the competition. Since then, city officials and community members have been working hard to turn Huntington's revitalization plan into action.

In April 2017, the winner of the America's Best Communities competition will be announced and be awarded $3 million toward its development project.

Gilbert's presidency becomes official

Jerome "Jerry" Gilbert officially became the 37th president of Marshall University on Saturday, Jan. 16.

Gilbert, 62, who most recently served as provost and executive vice president at Mississippi State University, was hired for the position in October 2015, following a 10-month search after the death of former Marshall President Stephen Kopp in December 2014.

Marshall University celebrated Gilbert's investiture with a ceremony on campus Thursday, Sept. 22.

Micah LeMaster acquitted of murder

After two weeks of testimony, in November a jury found Micah LeMaster not guilty in the shooting death of Joshua Martin, 21. LeMaster, 38, shot the alleged naked intruder at his Donald Avenue home in 2015, but prosecutors felt the use of force was more than necessary and charged the homeowner with first-degree murder.

The case explored many aspects of a resident's right to defend his home and included expert witnesses on self-defense issues.

Three guilty in Genoa stabbing death

Over the summer, Jeremy Marcum, 22, Elijah Jarvey Marcum, 21, and Melissa Gail Watts, 35, were all convicted of murder in the 2015 stabbing death of James "Red" Bundy in an attack that also wounded his wife, Myrtle Bundy.

While Jeremy Marcum was the one who wielded the knife in the attack, his close friend Elijah Marcum and Watts, the Bundys' neighbor, were convicted after prosecutors believed they encouraged the attack to happen while the trio abused illegal and over-the-counter drugs the evening prior.

Tuition goes up for MU students

Marshall University's Board of Governors approved a $119.6 million budget hinged on a 5 percent tuition increase in June.

That budget included $45.9 million in allocations from the state of West Virginia, an estimated $55.8 million from tuition and fees, and a $3.1 million dip into the university's reserve funds to bolster recruitment efforts.

However, Marshall lost $1.2 million in state allocations through cuts by Tomblin in October.

In total, Marshall has absorbed $11.5 million in cuts to its annual allocation from the state since Fiscal Year 2013, which ended June 30, 2013.

Since 2013, Marshall administrators, faculty and staff have been involved in the Marshall 20/20 cost-saving initiative through which actionable measures for cost-saving or revenue creation have been generated.

Ironton-Russell bridge completed

The Oakley Clark Collins Bridge connecting Ironton and Russell, Kentucky, opened to traffic the day before Thanksgiving. The $89 million bridge over the Ohio River replaced the 94-year-old Ironton Russell Bridge, which will be torn down next year.

Construction on the new bridge started about four years ago.

Process of merging hospitals continues

Cabell Huntington Hospital continued through the process of acquiring St. Mary's Medical Center, entering the second year of the process. With the help of the state legislature, the hospitals avoided a court battle with the Federal Trade Commission with the passage of the cooperative agreement law. The law shifted antitrust oversight to the state government, and the FTC dropped its complaint against the merger.

Steel of West Virginia, however, did not give up its fight against the merger, filing multiple appeals against different aspects of the merger.

Currently, an appeal of the hospital's certificate of need is stayed in Kanawha County Circuit Court. The hospitals also still need approval from the Vatican to finish the $165 million acquisition.

Explorer Academy opens to students

After nearly two years of work, the new home of Explorer Academy was opened to students at the start of the school year this August.

Located at 2901 Saltwell Road in Huntington, the school is the first in West Virginia to implement the Expeditionary Learning Education method of teaching, also known as EL Education. Under that model, students learn by conducting expeditions rather than by sitting in a classroom being taught one subject at a time. The expeditions encompass all the necessary curriculum work - inside and outside the classroom - to answer a question or address a problem unique to the school's community.

Explorer Academy is the result of the consolidation of Peyton and Geneva Kent elementary schools. It opened at the start of the 2015-16 school year at the former Geneva Kent facility at 68 Holley Ave., Huntington, which was equipped with modular classrooms to accommodate the extra students, while work continued on the former Beverly Hills facility.

In September 2014, the renovation of the former Beverly Hills facility into Explorer Academy was expected to cost about $14.3 million. However, after more than 20 change orders, the project was about $1.7 million over budget and ended up costing closer to $16 million.

Vacant building ordinance passes

During 2016, Huntington has taken several strides to address its vacant and dilapidated structures.

Earlier in the year, Huntington City Council approved a vacant building ordinance that requires residential owners to register their property if the building has been 100 percent vacant for 210 or more days.

Commercial building owners are required to register their building after 30 days of vacancy.

The ordinances are intended to keep unoccupied buildings in a safe, well-maintained condition, and prevent them from becoming safety hazards and lowering values of surrounding properties.

As of September there were about 600 commercial and residential properties on Huntington's vacant building registry.

As the city continues to work with owners of vacant properties, several unsafe buildings in Huntington that are too far gone are coming down.

The city approved the demolition of 39 structures on the Unsafe Building Commission list. About half of those demolitions were paid for using funds from an anonymous donor that gave the city $100,000.

There are 250 to 300 properties currently on the Unsafe Building Commission list.

Presidential candidates visit area

Democratic presidential candidate Bernie Sanders held a campaign rally in Huntington on April 27 at the Big Sandy Superstore Arena. Many supporters, unfazed by his trailing in the polls, waited up to eight hours to enter the arena before it opened.

Hillary Clinton, who would become the Democratic nominee in this year's presidential election, made stops in Williamson and Ashland, Kentucky, following visits by her husband, former President Bill Clinton, in Logan and Charleston.

Donald Trump, the president-elect, rallied supporters at the Charleston Civic Center on May 5.

Seven new City Council members elected

Following the November general election, the Huntington City Council will mostly consist of new faces.

Of the 11-member council, seven new members were elected after four current members chose not to run for re-election or reached their term limits.

Stepping into one of the two at-large seats will be Carol Polan who was selected to run by the Cabell County Democratic Executive Committee following the death of her husband, Chuck Polan, shortly after the primary election.

In District 2, Democrat Charlie McComas, a retired alcohol beverage control commissioner for the state of West Virginia, will represent the West End on council.

Alex Vence, who also serves on the Water Quality Board, will represent District 3 come January, replacing longtime Democratic incumbent Frances Jackson, who did not run for re-election.

Filling Gary Bunn's position in District 4 will be another newcomer, Republican Jennifer Wheeler.

District 5's new representative will be Tonia Kay Page, a head start teacher. Page replaces Sandra Clements, who was elected in 2008 and did not seek re-election.

Representing District 7 will be Mike Shockley, director of sales at Holiday Inn.

For District 9, which encompasses Guyandotte, Altizer, a portion of Highlawn between 28th and 31st streets and the Arlington Park subdivision, will be Tina Brooks.

Among the returning council members will be Rebecca Thacker (at-large), Joyce Clark (District 1), Mark Bates (District 6) and Tom McGuffin (District 8).

Northcott Court continues to come down

Demolition at Northcott Court is continuing at a slow and steady pace.

Northcott Court, which opened in 1940, was composed of 13 buildings and 130 housing units. The first phase of demolition began in August 2014.

Demolition on the six buildings in the center of Northcott Court was completed last year with the remaining units located along the exterior of the property. This phase of demolition costs about $190,000, and the final phase of demolition will cost about $100,000.

Demolition on the remaining seven buildings containing 10 units each is expected to take at least another year.

These families will either be relocated to other public housing units or given vouchers for rental assistance.

Finding alternative housing is crucial because the Housing Authority will not rebuild on the Northcott site.


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