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Manchin, colleagues send letter urging permanent funding for miners health care, pensions

CHARLESTON, W.Va. — A group of Democratic senators is asking congressional leadership to pass legislation permanently funding health care and pension benefits for retired coal miners as discussions continue in regards to preventing a government shutdown.

U.S. Sens. Joe Manchin of West Virginia; Doug Jones of Alabama; Mark Warner of Virginia; Sherrod Brown of Ohio; Bob Casey of Pennsylvania; and Tim Kaine of Virginia sent a letter dated Monday to leaders of the Senate and the House of Representatives.

By 2022, 87,000 retired coal miners could lose their pensions if lawmakers do nothing, as well as 20,000 additional beneficiaries who have yet to draw their pensions.

Manchin said in July the bankruptcies of Westmoreland and Mission Coal could result in 1,200 workers losing their benefits by the end of the year.

“If we don’t take action now, these families in Virginia, West Virginia, Wyoming, Alabama, Colorado, North Dakota and New Mexico will begin receiving health care termination notices at the end of October,” the senators said Monday.

U.S. Congress

U.S. Sen. Joe Manchin, D-W.Va.

“Without congressional action to keep this from happening, they will spend their holiday season worrying about whether or not they will have to choose between their life-saving medications and putting food on the table,” they added. “After all they have done for our country, the least we could do is keep our end of the bargain, honor the commitments that were made, and show them that we are thankful for the sacrifices they have made for our country.”

Manchin, Kaine, Brown and Casey spoke on the Senate floor in July in favor of the American Miners Act, which would require the Department of Treasury to transfer funds to the 1974 United Mine Workers of America Pension plan, increase the limit on transfers from $490 million to $750 million, and extend health care access to coal miners whose employers became bankrupt in 2018.

The legislation would also restore the Black Lung Liability Trust Fund excise tax through December 2028.

Manchin and the five other senators introduced the bill in January. The Democratic caucus co-sponsored the bill during the Senate’s consideration of the National Defense Authorization Act, but the vote was blocked.

The six senators also thanked House Speaker Nancy Pelosi, D-Calif., and Rep. Raul Grijalva, D-Ariz., for pushing House Resolution 397, which would allow for loans to certain pension plans in critical status.

The House passed the measure 264-169 in July; Rep. David McKinley, R-W.Va., voted for the resolution, while Reps. Alex Mooney, R-W.Va., and Carol Miller, R-W.Va., opposed.

The House Natural Resources Committee is also slated to vote on measures funding health benefits and pensions for retired coal miners; McKinley sponsored the bill regarding pensions, House Resolution 935.

The six senators said despite the House’s efforts, the Republican-led Senate has not taken up any related legislation this year.

“Because this is literally a life and death issue for thousands of families across this country, we urge you to include a permanent solution for miners health care and pension benefits in the short-term funding package that will ensure the continued operation of the U.S. government beyond September 30th, 2019, and we stand ready to work together in a bipartisan way to keep our promises to these great American families,” the legislators wrote.

Congress will have to approve multiple appropriations measures before Oct. 1 to fund various government agencies and departments.

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Fairmont State BOG votes to offer Martin new contract

FAIRMONT, W.Va. — The Fairmont State University Board of Governors has agreed to begin negotiations with president Mirta Martin for a new three-year contract.

The board met Monday, which attracted the attention of students as well as community members who want to see Martin remain as president.

“My relationship with her and in our working environment with the university and the things I do every day has been so positive and so good that I just want to continue that and she’s the right person to continue that with,” Fairmont Mayor Brad Merrifield said.

Martin took over the university in 2018. The college was $2.8 million in debt, but now has $1.9 million in reserves.

Enrollment is also increasing for the first time since 2010.

Martin said reaccreditation is her current top priority.

“Accreditation is a priority, that ensures our degree is worthy for our students so that they are able to progress,” she said.

Student body vice president Dillon Bradley said the changes he has seen in his five years has been incredible.

“In that period of time, I can see the changes that have happened and they’ve been drastic changes that had to happen for this institution to stay here,” said Bradley, who is working on his master’s degree.

Martin’s base salary is set at $270,000 with financial incentives for reaching certain goals.

Her current contract goes through Dec. 28.

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Talks continue on second ChalleNGe Academy

MORGANTOWN, W.Va. — The education omnibus that state lawmakers passed earlier this year included language aimed at increasing enrollment at the ChalleNGe Academy to 600 students as well as opening a second location in southern West Virginia.

The problem: the bill did not provide any additional funding for the proposal.

West Virginia University

Rob Alsop

West Virginia University officials are among those watching the next steps to not only secure funding but also secure a site for a second school.

“They had a lot on their plate with K-12 education reform. They may have wanted some additional information, they may have just said sharpen your pencils and come back,” said Rob Alsop, WVU’s vice president of strategic initiatives. “The National Guard has continued to have conversations with the legislature on how we get to a good place and make that ChalleNGe Academy a reality.”

The only current ChalleNGe Academy is in Preston County; the volunteer program is a 22-week quasi-military program for at-risk teenagers in danger of missing graduation requirements.

In terms of a second location, Alsop said WVU is considering allocating buildings from the West Virginia Institute of Technology campus in Montgomery.

“We’re a willing partner in terms of working with them for the buildings and as far as transfer of the property to the appropriate folks, so we’re very willing to work with them,” he said.

KVC Health Systems was supposed to take over the campus for an education facility for people aging out of foster care, but the group pulled out of the arrangement in March.

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FEMA lifts sanctions, but still might reclaim a million dollars over questioned W.Va. grant oversight

CHARLESTON, W.Va. — West Virginia has been relieved from longstanding sanctions over its inadequate safeguards for federal grant dollars, but the Federal Emergency Management Agency might still make the state pay back almost $1 million over documentation issues.

West Virginia’s Division of Homeland Security and Emergency Management is appealing the finding.

“Ultimately if the cost is disallowed, WV DHSEM would have to make up the shortfall in funding,” Dan Armstrong, general counsel for the state agency, stated in response to MetroNews questions.

FEMA has requested more information from West Virginia to render a decision on the appeal. State officials have until Oct. 5 to provide the additional information.

The $901,411 in question is a dark cloud remaining after FEMA lifted other sanctions last week.

West Virginia had received greater scrutiny for several years because of concerns about whether the state provided adequate oversight as grants were passed from the federal government to subrecipients such as local governments.

West Virginia was believed to be the only state, aside from Puerto Rico, under such mandatory manual reimbursement restrictions.

Jimmy Gianato

FEMA cited concerns dating back to 2011 and sent written notification to then-Emergency Management Director Jimmy Gianato in 2015.

The agency pushed West Virginia to improve its oversight and had a series of on-site audits. Last week, state leaders received a letter stating the mandatory manual reimbursement would be lifted.

But FEMA also reviewed an annual Single Audit that questioned whether many of the practices at the state agency are adequate.

So on July 31, FEMA reported back on several of the findings.

The most significant finding was that West Virginia did not obtain required documentation for some emergency management performance grants.

The recipients were supposed to maintain emergency operations plans, which would set guidelines to properly manage a disaster.

But there wasn’t evidence that such plans were available when federal auditors asked.

West Virginia had established that requirement itself, so the allegation is that the state didn’t enforce its own procedures.

“Of the samples pulled by the FEMA EMPG Program Manager during the July 2019 site visit, many of them did not have an updated EOP, but the sub still received the EMPG funding,” FEMA wrote.

The federal agency continued, “The finding is sustained and the questioned costs are deemed disallowed.”

On August 20, the state Division of Homeland Security and Emergency Management wrote back to appeal the finding.

Among the state’s contentions is that the grant money trickled to economically-challenged counties.

The subrecipients were Wood, Webster, Tyler, Tucker, Raleigh, Pendleton, Ohio, Mingo, Lincoln, Hancock, Greenbrier, Doddridge, Cabell, Brooke and Barbour counties.

“Some of these counties are among the poorest in the state with very small populations,” DHSEM’s Armstrong stated in the appeal letter.

“For a county like Webster, with a budget of $2.3 million for FY 2020, every dollar must be fully utilized. Even small disallowed amounts cause undue hardship on these small, rural communities.”

State officials also contended they hadn’t yet had time to improve all aspects of oversight.

Michael Todorovich

Former director Gianato was reassigned last year and then retired this spring. Mike Todorovich moved into the role and began to reshape the agency.

“While minimal compliance is still compliance, DHSEM strives to exceed the minimum requirements in everything we do. Under past leadership that wasn’t always the case,” Armstrong wrote for the agency’s appeal.

“However, DHSEM is now under new leadership that has made accountability, transparency and fiscal responsibility a priority.”

Armstrong wrote that until the Single Audit came out in 2018, the state agency was unaware of federal concerns about the emergency operations plans.

“Since DHSEM never had a meaningful opportunity to address FEMA’s concerns during the relevant time period, these costs should not be disallowed,” Armstrong wrote.

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Wheeling University to bring back several academic and athletic programs

WHEELING, W.Va. — Several academic and athletic programs are returning to Wheeling University, the school announced on Monday.

The institution, formally known as Wheeling Jesuit University, slashed programs and athletic clubs in the spring after the president declared financial exigency.

Wheeling University (WU) said undergraduate majors in biology, engineering science, and English will return to campus beginning in January. Two full-time faculty members in engineering and biology will be hired to teach new classes.

Online programs in criminal justice and psychology will also be offered to start in January.

The Cardinals Athletic Department is reinstating men’s golf, men’s and women’s lacrosse, and men’s and women’s swimming in 2020. WU also plans to introduce competitive cheerleading as a new sport for student-athletes in 2020.

President Michael Mihalyo and Senior Vice President Joseph Petrella remain on paid administrative leave after being placed there before the fall semester began.

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Dreams of becoming U.S. citizen realized during naturalization ceremony

CHARLESTON, W.Va. –More than 60 individuals from southern West Virginia have realized their dreams of becoming a United States citizen.

As part of U.S. Constitution Week, hundreds of naturalization ceremonies are taking place this week like the one at the Robert C. Byrd United States Courthouse in downtown Charleston on Monday.

“I can’t explain this. I am so excited,” Ruben Lopez Medellin, a new U.S. citizen originally from Mexico City, Mexico told MetroNews.

“This country has given to me many opportunities. This is a special day for me.”

Medellin, who currently lives in Greenbrier County, said one of the opportunities was meeting his wife. He said they now have two children and are living happily.

Following the Oath of Allegiance by Applicants in front of U.S. District Court Chief Judge Thomas E. Johnston and the Pledge of Allegiance to the Flag, new U.S. citizen Diana Lucia Clay gave a speech to the 61 new citizens.

Clay, originally from Colombia, told the crowd that America is where dreams are made.

“There is a great opportunity for us because we can reach our goal if we work hard,” she said. “I am not lying, I think everybody knows that America opens the door for people who fight and work.”

“Here in America, if you work hard it pays off. Don’t give up and keep dreaming because we can do it.”

Clay said her husband and son have helped her through the long and sometimes tough process of becoming a citizen. For Medellin, he said it took him years following his marriage to an American.

A naturalization test must be passed after certain requirements are met including being a permanent resident for at least five years.

The U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services announced Monday that it will celebrate Constitution Day and Citizenship Day by welcoming nearly 34,300 new U.S. citizens during 316 naturalization ceremonies across the nation between September 13 and 23.

In 2004, the late Senator Byrd helped establish the Constitution Day Holiday.

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Musselman & Martinsburg face out-of-state foes (Class AAA Week 4 previews)

MORGANTOWN, W.Va. — Greg Carey and Joe Brocato discuss the best matchups in Week 4 of Class AAA football.

  • University (2-1) at Wheeling Park (2-1)
  • Academy Park, Pa. (4-0) at Martinsburg (3-0)
  • Musselman (3-0) at Tuscarora, Va. (2-1)

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Photo gallery: Ohio at Marshall

HUNTINGTON, W.Va. — Marshall improved to 2-1 and reclaimed The Bell with a thrilling 33-31 victory over nearby rival Ohio at Joan C. Edwards Stadium.

(Photos by Angie Shockley)

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Political newcomer to challenge Porterfield in GOP primary

PRINCETON, W.Va. — A retired U.S. Army colonel announced Monday his bid for the state House of Delegates seat currently held by Republican Delegate Eric Porterfield.

Princeton resident Doug Smith will challenge Porterfield for the Republican nomination in District 27.

“I believe Southern West Virginia deserves a conservative representative who will provide a voice to the citizens by creating better jobs, fixing our roads, fighting the drug epidemic, building a disciplined education system and eliminating oversized bureaucracy in government,” Smith said in a statement.

Committee Smith 4 WV House

Doug Smith

Smith described his platform as pro-life, pro-2nd Amendment and pro-business.

The announcement did not mention Porterfield, whose statements earlier this year about the LGBTQ community sparked national media attention and rebuke by Democrats. West Virginia’s Republican Party denounced comments in which Porterfield compared LGBTQ activists to members of the Ku Klux Klan.

Porterfield, a first-term House member, previously indicated he will run for re-election. He and two other Republicans, incumbents John Shott and Joe Ellington, were elected in 2018.

Former House member Marty Gearheart announced earlier this month his candidacy to replace Shott, who is considering retirement.

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Roane County students return to school and try to move forward

Courtesy Photo

Alex Miller

SPENCER, W.Va. — There is no policy manual when it comes to helping a teenager handle the death of another teenager. Staff, faculty, and coaches in Roane County this week are having to wing it and trust their gut.

It’s going to be a difficult week at the school following the untimely death of senior football player Alex Miller who collapsed and died in a game last Friday night at Clay County.

“It’s hard for us to help them deal with it because it’s not supposed to happen. It’s not something we’re trained to deal with and it’s not something they expect. They were expecting when the first quarter broke, take a break get back in there and have a great football game,” said Roane County Schools Superintendent Richard Duncan.

“Instead what happened since then has been something no young person, no teacher, no coach, and no parent should ever have to go through,”

But they are going through it. Students are in the midst of being forced to grow up and accept what can often be harsh life lessons. One of the hardest to accept is life goes on. Fortunately, Roane County already had an open date on the football schedule this Friday night.

Next week the team will return to the field, one light, to take on Braxton County at home. It promises to be an emotional night where Miller may be an inspiration.

“He was exactly the kid we want in our schools and representing our schools both on the field and off the field. He was just a wonderful kid,” Duncan said.

As word spread of the tragedy Saturday, the messages of sympathy and support flowed into the tiny town of Spencer.

Ritchie County HS Athletics

Players from several other high schools across West Virginia and Ohio collected donations for Miller’s family Sunday as a sign of respect.

“We’ve seen just how great the statewide community is,” Duncan said. “It’s been incredible the outpouring of support from not just in the state, but from Ohio, eastern Kentucky, and as far away as Myrtle Beach. It’s been people just reaching out and letting us know we’re in their thoughts and prayers.”

Several neighboring counties have sent their own grief counselors to Roane County High School to help students deal with the loss and work through the pain.

The support has grown organically. Players from several West Virginia and Ohio high school teams stood along the roadsides of their communities Sunday to solicit donations and raised more than $7,000 for Miller’s family to help with expenses.

On social media, Tuesday has been dubbed “Roane Raider Tuesday.” Students, faculty, and staff along with the general public are being encouraged to don maroon and silver on Tuesday as a sign of respect and support to the Roane County community and Miller’s family.

Other schools across West Virginia were encouraging students to participate in the day of support.

“His friends have said wonderful things about him and about how he took care of him,” Duncan said. “I think this is part of the great tragedy here, is people realize he was such a great individual and such a young individual to have lost his life so early,”

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