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More Cell Coverage, Improving Flooding Response and Restoring Voting Confidence Discussed at Last Week’s County Commission Meeting

By Derek Tyson, The Welch News Editor

WELCH, W.Va. – Up for discussion at Wednesday’s McDowell County Commission meeting were topics ranging from a cell tower for Bradshaw, flood response, and increasing voting confidence in county residents.
Jimmy Gianato, Chairman of the 911 Center Board, updated the County Commission about efforts to bring a cell tower to the Bradshaw area.  

“We were able to get the engineer up there to do the survey and identify the property. We met with the property owner last week and she is in agreement to enter into a long-term lease with the Commission,” said Gianato.  

The agreement would be contingent on funding being secured in the future for the project, but the Commission would need a letter of intent in order to apply for the Tower grant.

“She has been receptive and asked a fairly nominal fee for the property. I would ask that we get a draft lease together, I’ll send it to the Prosecutor’s Office with all the information on it, and then you all can contingently approve it. Once the property owner looks over it, we need to sit down and work on the actual application because we need it in fairly soon if we want to get any funding this year,” said Gianato.  

“What kind of money are we looking at monthly for the lease,” asked Commissioner Michael Brooks.
“Probably around 300,” replied Gianato.

The Commission encouraged Gianato to send the draft lease to the Prosecuting Attorney’s Office so the project could move forward.
Sandra Blankenship addressed the Commission about flood plain property currently under Army Corps of Engineers control, asking if there had been any progress made towards selling the properties.

“We are able to sell the Army Corps properties, but they will have to be sold at public auction,” said Prosecuting Attorney Brittany Puckett. “We’ll have to figure out which ones we want to sell and then the public auction will be held. If you’re the purchaser, you have to abide by the Army Corps rules, such as building above a certain level and other restrictions.”

Blankenship asked when the auction would be held but Puckett said no date had been set as of the meeting.

“I didn’t think we had to do that,” said Commissioner Michael Brooks. “I thought if someone was already leasing the property, they would get first dibs. If they didn’t wish to bid, then it would go to public auction.”

“The Army Corp of Engineers tore down the property beside the land I lease and I spoke with them. The Head guy from the Army Corps said they sell them in Wayne county. He said that when they started selling property, his parents had leased some property and were given the first option to buy the land,” said Blankenship.

“We talked with them today, and they didn’t think it would be a problem as long as the property is under state control and there are no dwellings on the property. Where you guys have had that property for such a long time, I don’t think it would be a problem,” said Brooks.

Commission President Cecil Patterson said the process was new to everyone.

“I know the Prosecutor has been very busy, but we just want to make sure we’re doing it the right way,” said Patterson.  
Sheriff James Muncy Jr. also addressed the Commission at Wednesday’s meeting, bringing forward several options to aid residents across the county during flooding events after grappling with recent storm damage.

“I applied for an ATV on a USDA Grant. I just sent some more information out this morning that they wanted. It’s the same as the one we have borrowed from Kimball Fire Department several times. It’s a rescue ATV that comes with emergency lights and search lights,” said Muncy.

The Sheriff also had reached out to the military, finding two mobile water tank trailers also known as water buffalos.   

“There are two water buffalos, one at Fort Bragg and the other is at Fort Leonard Wood in Missouri,” said Sheriff Muncy. “We’ve got to pick these up by next Friday if we want them and they are free. Each holds 440 gallons. These would be good for little areas like Bull Creek and Warriormines, places that flood and its hard to get a big tractor trailer in there.”

Commissioner Cody Estep said he would like to look into getting a larger water truck for flood response in the future. Cecil Patterson agreed.

“I think as a County Commission, we need to look at getting a bigger one because this isn’t going to be the last flood guys,” said Patterson.

The Commission approved Sheriff Muncy’s request to acquire the water buffaloes in the meantime.

“Another way to help flood impacted residents would be to acquire some sump pumps and trash pumps. If you store them, I’ve got deputies willing to go around and help residents get water out of their basements. I think it’s something we need if we want to help these people,” said Sheriff Muncy.
All three Commissioners were in agreement, and gave Sheriff Muncy the greenlight to price out the pumps and return with a price at the next meeting.
EDA Board Chairman Barry Hale called on the Commission for help restoring damages at Berwind Lake caused by recent flooding.

“We need to move on an emergency contract to get someone in there to repair it. It needs a contractor to go in there and do it right,” said Commissioner Patterson.

Prosecuting Attorney Brittany Puckett agreed with having the work done under emergency contract.

“So you don’t want us to do anything else to the spillway,” asked Hale.

“I don’t think you can Barry. It’s outgrown your equipment,” said Patterson.

“I’m not going to sit there and keep letting the lot get washed out. Get something done, I need some help,” said Hale.

“It’s needs to be done quick. Y’all should have already done this. You know how big of a mess that is. That’s the most beautiful place in the county,” said Hale.

“And everyone in this room knows that. We’re not here to make a political argument out of Berwind Lake. We know it needs addressed, it will be addressed, and we’ll fix it,” said Patterson.

The Commission also motioned to approve a new slide and repairs to be made at Berwind Lake Pool as well as the boat dock on the property.
Anita Hall, citizen of Welch and District 36 WV House of Delegates candidate, addressed the commission over voting integrity after the confusion and frustration that unfolded during the Primary Election back in May.

“Voter confidence is down and it is of the utmost importance that we citizens have confidence in the voting system,” said Hall. “One of the main requests that I have heard is for paper ballots. They feel more secure with a paper ballots than pushing buttons on a TV screen. They want something a little more old school, we all feel that we should have a choice. I am one of those people.”  

Hall acknowledged the work being done between the County Clerk’s Office and the Secretary of State’s Office to reconcile any differences between data that caused the issues in May’s election. But she wanted to know how the citizens of McDowell County would be informed that it was fixed.

“After the residents are moved to their new precincts, I’ll get a list of where they were and where they are going to be on the new map. Every person affected will get a letter telling them where they will be registered,” said Crystal Greer, Deputy Clerk of the County Clerk’s Office. “If they don’t want to go to that new precinct, then they can early vote at our office or have a paper ballot mailed to them through Absentee voting.”

Hall asked if voters would be required to take any actions if they received a letter that their voting information had changed.

“It’s just going to make them aware. If you want to let them know, they can come up to update their voter registration information or do it online,” said Greer. “The most helpful thing voters can do to help the process is to verify that their voter registration address is up to date with their 911 address.”

Hall turned her attention back to the County Commission, asking what kind of plan they had to communicate with voters to increase their confidence in participating in November’s General Election.
“These precincts were assigned by the House of Delegates, we didn’t have anything to do with it. We’ve been calling all day to try to find the most centralized location possible. We don’t want one person driving 14 miles while someone else is two minutes away if possible. That’s our job, is to get the polling precincts in order,” said Patterson.  

“I know the County Commission is working diligently to get this fixed. The County Clerk’s Office and the 911 Center too,” said Hall. “What I’m asking is what can we do to communicate this to the general public so they know how hard we are working to get this fixed?”

Patterson said once the changes have been made to the system, the Commission would hold public hearings and visit City Halls, as well as reach the public through the media and hold a public awareness campaign.

“Voter turnout in McDowell County is low. After all the confusion in the Primary Election, not only is turnout low but voter confidence is low. What I’m here to do is offer help and when I’m talking to people, that I’m giving them the right answers. In addition to running ads and running it on Facebook, we should utilize the billboards in the county. Print flyers to hang up all over the county to encourage voters to call the court house to check on their voter registration status today,” said Hall.  

According to Patterson, the County had intentions to apply for a grant in August for a new voting system that would marry the best of both worlds: paper ballots with electronic processing. Staff with the Clerk’s Office estimated the system would cost approximately $300,000.

Commissioner Michael Brooks explained the County’s justification for switching to digital voting.
“We destroyed tens of thousands of ballots because you had to order 80% of the total for each precinct. For one precinct, you might have 300 ballots and only 3 people voted. Then we’d have to throw the others away and it was often six figures by the time it was all said and done,” said Brooks.  
“But your question is how to make the public aware and how to have it corrected by this year’s election,” said Commissioner Cody Estep.

He also agreed that after corrections have been made, the Commission would inform the public through the media and other outlets.  Commissioner Brooks, too, was in agreement and insisted he would encourage the public to verify their voter registration addresses.
Also at Wednesday’s County Commission meeting:

  • The Commission approved the hiring and welcomed new Sheriff’s Deputy Delbert Martin.  
  • The Commission approved a $5,000 donation to the Town of Bradshaw for their Fall Festival.
  • The Commission appointed Guy Wyatt to the 911 Center Board of Directors, as well as to the Firefighter’s Association Board.
  • After an Executive Session, the Commission voted to enter into a property exchange agreement with the West Virginia State Police regarding the former McDowell County Ambulance Authority Building.
  • County Commission Candidate Martin West addressed the Commission about EPA funding announced for clean water and air initiatives, thinking it could be used to help outlying communities deep within hollows and away from current public water and wastewater systems.