By Derek Tyson, The Welch News Editor
WELCH, WV – After an emergency County Commission meeting today, Commissioners voted to change County office hours from 10 a.m. until 2 p.m., urging citizens to only visit under emergency situations.
“This is meeting none of us ever thought we would have,” said Commission President Cecil Patterson. “It’s already reached Mercer County so that’s pretty close to home.”
“I think it’s a very serious issue and we as a Commission need to take appropriate action,” said Commissioner Michael Brooks. “I would rather err on the side of caution and stay vigilant in the decisions we make, for both the public and our employees.”
Commissioner Cody Estep was unable to attend the meeting but participated over phone.
Elected officials were consulted during the decision making process, with each office submitting a plan of action during the COVID-19 pandemic.
According to employees, the County Clerk’s Office saw visitors from Ohio and Kentucky, as well as Mercer County yesterday due to their local courthouses being shut down.
“I personally think that unless its an emergency situation, most things could be handled over the telephone,” said Brooks.
“I agree with Commissioner Brooks, but we’re also in the middle of tax season and election season,” said Patterson.
Sheriff Martin West explained that the Tax Office would have two employees at a time in office to handle tax payments via telephone.
Employees will continue to work regular hours, with only the 4-hour window open for public visits, but Commissioners and elected officials wish to limit this only to emergency cases.
“We just want to stop as much contact as we can,” said Sheriff West.
“We’re not able to do a lot online, we’ve put it off,” said Patterson. “We’ve seen a lot of our weak areas in this County and that will probably be a huge focus moving forward.”
County Assessor recommended using drop boxes for Courthouse offices for citizens to insert paperwork and any payments needed to be made. Leftover ballot boxes as well as fabrication of new boxes at Steven’s Correctional Facility were mentioned as an option in case the County were to move to completely closing offices to the public.
After discussion among elected officials, everyone settled on hours from 10 a.m. to 2:00 p.m. for the public window, stressing citizens should only visit under emergency situations.
“A lot of employees were wondering if they would get the same pay if their schedules are being rotated,” said County Administrator Jennifer Wimmer.
“They should,” said Brooks.
“At this time, it’s in our budget and theres no need to hurt the employees,” said Patterson. “They’re on call, they’re going to be here or on the phone, no one will really be off work.”
Michael Brooks motioned to approve employee pay on a normal business, seconded by Cody Estep. It was approved.
The question of holding County Commission meetings also came up during today’s meeting.
“We can call a special meeting if we need something,” suggested Sheriff West.
“My recommendation is if we need it, we’ll be here because we’ll probably be here before then,” said Patterson. “If we need to live stream the meeting, maybe we can do it that way.”
Changes to County and Courthouse office hours will take effect tomorrow morning, March 20th, 2020 at 10:00 a.m.
Also discussed at today’s emergency meeting were:
– Last week, the Commission formed an Advisory Board with the Health Department, Sheriff’s Office, Welch Community Hospital, 911 and more agencies to keep everyone informed on latest COVID-19 information.
“Having this in place allows us to share information with the public,” said Brooks. “When there’s no information, that can create panic and chaos. This Commission is making sure to share any information we have with the public.”
-Out-of-state visitors traveling to McDowell County for the Hatfield-McCoy trails were also discussed, with Commissioners receiving public comments of concern.
“We’ve had a multitude of comments, especially on social media, about the out-of-state visitors coming to our area to ride the trails,” said Brooks. “There’s been some pretty heated debate about that, but it’s really not our call to change anything with the Hatfield-McCoy Trail.
“Even if they shut that trail down, we’ll still have the Outlaw riders and they might not take this seriously until it really hits home,” said Brooks. “It’s not that we’re trying to prohibit businesses, but if its strict enough for our Governor to shut the restaurants down to drive thru only, a lot of people are really questioning that.”
“We’ve got a lot of those questions too,“ said JJ Rose of the McDowell County Health Department. “The Hatfield-McCoy Trail Authority said if any guidelines or regulations come down, they will of course follow, but nothing has come down as of now.”
“I spoke to Jeff Lusk, the Director, the night before last,” said Patterson, confirming Lusk’s comments that no State directive had been ordered to close the trails to the public. “We were riding around this past weekend in Northfork Hollow and saw license plates from New Jersey, Virginia, Ohio, Maryland, South Carolina, North Carolina, Tennessee, that’s coming in here. We’re trying to protect ourselves but our borders are still open. I think it’s something that needs looked at.”
“I really think we need to look at these facilities that house large groups of people in a single structure,” said Brooks.
Governor Jim Justice announced a media conference would be held later today at 4:00 p.m. In light of any future directives made in this rapid changing scenario, the Commission voted to allow the County Administrator to close facilities to the public.