Elkins council meetings to be streamed online

Elkins, W. Va., July 14, 2021: Elkins City Council meetings can now be viewed online, thanks to a newly installed streaming system that transmits both audio and video from the council chamber in city hall to the city’s Facebook and YouTube pages. Meetings can be viewed live and will also be archived on both sites for later review.

Although technical issues encountered using commercial conferencing services during the pandemic drove home the need for a better way to share council meetings with remote viewers, city officials had already been thinking about ways to make council meetings even more accessible.

“We’re always looking for ways to increase transparency and provide the public with as much information as possible about their city government,” says Elkins City Clerk Jessica Sutton. “The strategic plan council adopted in 2018 included a goal of increasing public engagement, and broadcasting council meetings is a great step in that direction.”

City of Elkins contracted with Electronic Specialty, the same company that modernized the council-chamber sound system in early 2020, to install a streaming system. Electronic Specialty recommended a solution that uses a broadcast-quality high-definition PTZOptics camera with a 12x optical zoom to capture video. Digital audio is captured from the chamber’s new sound board. An AV encoder streams the resulting signal to the city’s social media pages.

Electronic Specialty based its recommendations for this system on its extensive experience deploying similar solutions throughout the state.

“We’ve set up streaming systems for a lot of churches, county commissions, courts, and even the state legislature, and we’re always evaluating new equipment,” says Mark Wood, the AV manager for Electronic Specialty. “The PTZOptics camera is an excellent balance of cost and quality for this kind of setup.”

The overall cost of the new streaming system was about $3,500.

To allow city officials and staff to learn and test the system, at first only council meetings will be broadcast. In the fall, city staff will evaluate the possibility of broadcasting committee meetings as well.

According to Wood, Elkins’s new streaming system puts the city ahead of the curve.

“There aren’t many cities in West Virginia we know of that have deployed this kind of capability,” he says. “Elkins is kind of on the cutting edge by going this route.”

Sutton agrees that the new system should be seen as a point of pride for Elkins officials, residents, and business owners alike.

“Council makes decisions that affects thousands of people, including residents and business owners, and all of those people have the right to observe the process and understand how their representatives are arriving at those decisions,” she says. “By making it simple and convenient to view meetings online, the new streaming system really underlines our commitment to transparency and public engagement.”

The meetings will be streamed on:

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Elkins Officials Remind Public of Fireworks Rules

Elkins, W. Va., June 25, 2021: With the approach of Independence Day, City of Elkins officials want residents to stay safe, remain courteous, and follow city laws when using fireworks.

The state legislature reduced statewide restrictions on fireworks in 2016. However, per Elkins city code, “it shall be unlawful for any person to use, shoot, or discharge consumer fireworks within the City limits.” Violators of the city fireworks ordinance may be fined as much as $500.

“Consumer fireworks—which include firecrackers, rockets, Roman candles, and that sort of thing—are illegal inside city limits,” said Elkins Police Department Chief Travis Bennett. “Basically, if it’s a handheld device like a sparkler, or if it’s a ground-based device like fountains, snakes, or smoke bombs, it’s allowed. If it fires something into the air or explodes, it’s against the law in Elkins.”

Fireworks that fire into the air or explode are a significant cause of emergency room visits each summer, according to the National Safety Council (NSC). In a recent year, according to an NSC press release, “eight people died and over 12,000 were injured badly enough to require medical treatment after fireworks-related incidents.”

Children are especially vulnerable to fireworks-related injuries. “Of those 12,000 injuries, 50% were to children and young adults under age 20,” the NSC release states. “And while the majority of these incidents were due to amateurs attempting to use professional-grade, homemade, or other illegal fireworks or explosives, an estimated 1,200 injuries were from less powerful devices like small firecrackers and sparklers.”

In addition to potentially causing injury, fireworks can terrify pets and may trigger adverse reactions in people suffering from PTSD, including veterans.

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ARPA Committee Reviews Rules at First Meeting

Elkins, W. Va., June 15, 2021: Mayor Jerry Marco’s ad hoc ARPA Advisory Committee met for the first time last week. The committee was established to advise the Elkins council as it considers how to make use of approximately $3 million in American Rescue Plan Act (ARPA) Fiscal Recovery Funds (FRF) awarded to the city earlier this year.

The ARPA Advisory Committee consists of the chairpersons of each of council’s five standing committees. The committee’s chairperson will be Mike Hinchman (chairperson of the Finance Committee). The committee’s other members are Marilynn Cuonzo (Municipal Properties Committee), Rob Chenoweth (Personnel Committee), David Parker (Public Safety Committee), and Nanci Bross-Fregonara (Rules & Ordinances).

At this first meeting, which was held in the council chamber at city hall last Tuesday, the committee reviewed guidance documents received from the U.S. Treasury Department. These documents are still undergoing public review and comment and may change further before being finalized.

At recent meetings, the Elkins council authorized creation of a bank account for managing the city’s ARPA funds and authorized Mayor Marco to execute documents required by the U.S. Treasury prior to disbursement of any funds. No disbursement of ARPA funds has been received by City of Elkins yet.

According to the U.S. Treasury Department, ARPA funds will be distributed in two equal disbursements, half in 2021 and half in 2022. ARPA funds cannot be used to cover expenditures made prior to March 3, 2021. Funds must be obligated no later than December 31, 2024, and expenditures to cover those obligations must occur no later than December 31, 2026.

The committee will next begin evaluating proposed expenditures as well as planning for public input opportunities. The committee’s next meeting is scheduled for Tuesday, July 13, at 1:30 p.m.

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Water Shutoff Scammers Visiting Elkins Residences

Elkins, W. Va., June 8, 2021: City of Elkins is warning of a scam targeting local residents. The scam involves imposters knocking on doors, claiming to represent the city’s water utility, and demanding immediate in-person payment to avoid shutoffs. The city has received reports of two such incidents, and police are investigating.

Dan Stemple, a clerk in the city’s Utility Billing Department, says that city employees will never contact residents this way.

“If your account is overdue, you’ll receive a notice in the mail, then an automated phone call,” he explains. “If we don’t have your phone number, we’ll leave a tag on the front door of the property. No city employees ever visit you in person or call you to demand payment.”

If city employees do need to visit a property, such as to access a water meter or perform other work, they will be easily identifiable.

“Any city employees doing that kind of work would be in uniform and driving a clearly marked city vehicle,” says Stemple. “If you have the slightest concern about whether you are talking to a genuine city employee, you can also call to doublecheck.”

If you are contacted by anyone asking for money on behalf of the city, please call 911. To ask questions about this or any other utilities-related matter, please contact the Utility Billing Department:

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Read this on our blog: www.cityofelkinswv.com/city-blog.

Elkins Mayor Establishes ARPA Advisory Committee

Elkins, W. Va., June 4, 2021: Mayor Jerry Marco has established an ad-hoc committee to advise the Elkins council as it considers how to make use of approximately $3 million in American Rescue Plan Act (ARPA) Fiscal Recovery Funds (FRF) awarded to the city earlier this year. The ARPA Advisory Committee meets for the first time on Tuesday at 1:30 p.m.

Elkins City Clerk Jessica Sutton explains that the committee will first review guidance documents from the U.S. Treasury Department, which were only released several weeks ago.

“Before council can start considering specific expenditures, we need to make sure we have a good grasp of what is allowed under ARPA rules,” she says. “The rules are more than 150 pages long, so that is going to take a little time. These are also interim rules, meaning there could be changes as we go along, much as there were with CARES Act funds.”

The Treasury Department’s interim rules state that ARPA funds may be used in four broad categories: to respond to the public health emergency or its negative economic impacts; to provide premium pay to workers performing essential work during the public health emergency; to replace lost public sector revenues; and to make investments in water, sewer, or broadband infrastructure.

ARPA disbursements may not be used for deposit into pension funds or to offset reduction in tax revenues “resulting from a change in law, regulation, or administrative interpretation.” ARPA funds also may not be used as savings for future spending needs.

The ARPA Advisory Committee consists of the chairpersons of each of council’s five standing committees. The committee’s chairperson will be Mike Hinchman (chairperson of the Finance Committee). The committee’s other members are Marilynn Cuonzo (Municipal Properties Committee), Rob Chenoweth (Personnel Committee), David Parker (Public Safety Committee), and Nanci Bross-Fregonara (Rules & Ordinances).

Mayor Marco says he wants community expectations about this money to remain realistic.

“This is absolutely once-in-a-lifetime money for Elkins,” says Marco. “That said, I hope everyone will keep in mind the high cost of materials these days. It’s a lot of money, but it won’t go as far as it would have just a few years ago.”

According to the U.S. Treasury Department, ARPA funds will be distributed in two equal disbursements, half in 2021 and half in 2022. ARPA funds cannot be used to cover expenditures made prior to March 3, 2021. Funds must be obligated no later than December 31, 2024, and expenditures to cover those obligations must occur no later than December 31, 2026.

“Council understands that time is of the essence, because this is a relatively compressed timeframe,” says Marco. “However, they also understand we need to act very deliberately in using these windfall funds. This committee is going to play a vital role in making sure we all have a good understanding of the rules as we start to consider possible projects and expenditures.”

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Elkins Launches Online Dilapidated Structures Dashboard

Elkins, W. Va., May 25, 2021: The City of Elkins Geographic Information Systems (GIS) Department has launched a public online tool for exploring data about dilapidated structures in Elkins.

The new Dilapidated Structures Dashboard presents the address and map location, condition, and status of properties that have been evaluated by the city building inspector for violations of the property maintenance code.

“The building inspector uses a structure evaluation survey to determine the severity of a structure’s condition,” says Ben Martin, the city’s GIS technician. The survey is based on a tool created by West Virginia University’s BAD Buildings Program. “These evaluations basically help to determine whether the city should seek repair or demolition of the structure.”

On the dashboard map’s Structure Status tab, users can click on a property on the map and see a range of information, including the structure’s address, survey date, evaluated condition, and—if demolished—the date of the demolition and any cost to city taxpayers.

“The Structure Status tab is meant to communicate progress, whether toward demolition or toward convincing the property owner to address the building inspector’s concerns,” says Martin. “The Structure Status tab shows what a lengthy and costly process it can be to get a structure demolished, whether by acquiring the property or seeking a court order forcing action by the owner.”

In addition to providing the cost of each individual demolition, the dashboard presents a running total of demolition expenses incurred by the city and the average cost of demolishing a property, currently $134,653and $17,873, respectively.

“When spending public funds, it’s important to look at how much it costs to achieve policy objectives, like dealing with unsafe buildings,” says Martin. “We wanted the demolition costs front and center so users can easily see how much this kind of neglect is costing all of us.”

Another feature charts the location of the owners of dilapidated structures. According to this feature, only 55 percent of listed structures are owned by Elkins residents, with 32 percent owned by a single resident of Lake City, Florida.

“Ownership location data is also important to display because the farther away property owners live, the harder it can be to motivate them to address the issues with their buildings,” Martin explains. “This is good information for users to have so they can understand why the process of dealing with one structure might take a long time compared to others.”

The dashboard began as a grant-funded project managed by the West Virginia Region VII Planning & Development Council, which shifted the project to Martin after his hire by City of Elkins earlier this year. Optimized for use on desktop computers, the dashboard does not currently support use on mobile devices, although this capability is planned for a future update.

The Dilapidated Structures Dashboard may be accessed here: www.bit.ly/Elkins-Dilap-Dashboard.

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EFD Chief Retiring After 40-year Career

Mayor Jerry Marco presents a plaque to retiring EFD Chief Tom Meader.

Elkins, W. Va., April 21, 2021: Elkins Fire Department Chief Tom Meader announced his retirement at last night’s special council meeting after more than 40 years of volunteer and paid service at EFD. His retirement is effective April 30. Captain Steven Himes was appointed interim chief and a committee was formed to search for Meader’s replacement.

The year 1979 saw two important developments in the history of the Elkins Fire Department. That was the year that EFD gained new room to grow in its building at 216 Fourth Street, after the city government’s administrative offices were moved from there to the former federal building on Davis Avenue. That was also the year that Meader joined the department as a volunteer firefighter.

At the time, Meader was operating Tom’s Sunoco service station, at the corner of Randolph Avenue and Davis Avenue. Friends who were volunteer firefighters suggested that he should apply.

“It seemed like a good fit,” says Meader. “I had my own business, and I was located close to the station, so I’d be able to get down there quickly. I thought I’d give it a try.”

Meader soon realized he had both a knack and a passion for the work of a firefighter.

“I loved every minute of it,” he says. “I loved the work, I loved the training, I loved the camaraderie. There’s a reason why, once someone joins the department, they very seldom end up leaving. It just gets in your blood.”

In 2001, having sold his service station to future Randolph County Commissioner Chris See, Meader joined the City of Elkins Water Distribution Department. He was still serving as a volunteer firefighter, however, and—in 2004—he accepted the then-unpaid position of EFD chief. Four years later, in 2008, the Elkins council appointed Meader the first paid EFD chief since 1986.

“It just got to a point where the budget was too big and there was too much else going on for the chief job to stay volunteer,” says Meader.

Even as chief, Meader maintained a hands-on role in the department’s emergency responses. Until 2016, the department had only one watch-standing firefighter on duty per shift, but best safety practices required at least a two-person team before a fire engine could depart the station.

“There were a lot of times when it was just me and the duty man,” says Meader. “I fought a lot of fires even once I made chief.”

Once on-scene, these first-responding skeleton crews were typically joined by volunteers. Meader says volunteers were and still are crucial to the department’s success.

“Our volunteers are fantastic, and we really couldn’t do what we do without them,” says Meader. “You’re talking about guys who will get up at 2 a.m., fight a fire, then go to work by 6 a.m. somewhere else. They don’t have to do this, but they choose to. It gets in their blood.”

Still, as time went on, Meader began to notice trends that concerned him.

“There’s less and less people coming out to volunteer,” he says. “Every volunteer department is struggling to get volunteers these days, and some of them are going to go out of existence. It’s just a changing world, and you have to move forward. You can’t just stay there circling the drain.”

Meader’s plan for moving forward depended on increasing the number of paid, civil-service firefighters working at the department. (Although the chief position is paid, it is not a civil-service position.) There was a problem, though.

“We just didn’t have the budget,” says Meader. “That’s when I started looking at expanding the fire fee. Why shouldn’t the people outside the city pay for the services they get from us, just like the people inside?”

Property owners inside Elkins had long paid a fire-protection service fee to help support the department, but EFD—which answers an average of 650 calls a year—is required by the state fire marshal’s office to respond both inside and outside of city limits throughout an overall region known as the department’s “first-due area.” The EFD first-due area is 150 square miles and home to more than 15,000 people.

After establishing that West Virginia Code §8-13-13 grants cities the authority to charge such a fee, even outside city limits, Meader worked with council and his fellow administrative officers to make his proposal a reality. In 2015, council authorized collection of fire fees throughout the EFD first-due area.

The department is now entirely funded by the proceeds of this fee, which are restricted solely for the department’s use. Fire-fee income enabled the department to expand first to seven and now—as of last night’s swearing in of two new civil-service members—nine professional firefighters, or three per shift, in addition to the chief.

The predictable revenues of the fire fee also enable the department to plan more effectively for the purchase of new fire engines, which must be replaced every 20 years and which currently start at $450,000.

The expanded fire-fee income also helped Meader achieve his goal of improving the department’s Public Protection Classification (PPC) issued by the Insurance Services Office (ISO). ISO PPC classifications are based on multiple factors, but one of the most important is the average number of on-duty firefighters per shift in a given year.

“Getting to three firefighters on duty per shift helped us improve our ISO rating from a 5 to a 3,” says Meader.

According to the ISO website, out of 523 West Virginia fire departments rated by the organization, EFD is one of only 36 with a score of 3 or better. PPC scores for a given community are part of the formulas that insurance companies use to establish rates for structures located there; although these formulas are complex, lower ISO PPC ratings generally benefit policyholders.

“I’m very pleased with everything we’ve been able to accomplish because of the fire fees,” says Meader. “We couldn’t have done it any other way.”

In addition to the nine paid civil-service positions, the department has around 30 volunteers. Professional and volunteer personnel are qualified to provide emergency medical services and perform vehicular extraction, HAZMAT containment, and trench, high-angle, and swift-water rescue. EFD also has eight certified divers. Multiple times per year, EFD firefighters visit area schools to instruct students about smoke detectors and fire safety.

When asked what he plans to do in his retirement, Meader says it might not look too different from what he does today.

“I love my job and I hate to retire but the time has come,” he says. “I’ll probably still keep volunteering though because I really can’t stand to leave it behind. I’ve been in this building and running out to fires and everything else almost every day since 1979. Every day was a different experience, and that’s what I love about it. Anyone who thinks they might be interested in firefighting, I tell them there’s always something new to learn, and when you can help someone in a tragic situation it’s the greatest feeling in the world.”

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Street Sweeping Starts Monday

Street sweeper parking enforcement starts May 3

Elkins, W. Va., April 16, 2021: The Elkins street-sweeping season begins Monday. All property owners and residents are asked to review the 2021 Street Sweeper Schedule to learn when vehicles must be moved so as not to obstruct the street sweeper. (Or access an interactive map here.) Starting Monday, May 3, city police will ticket vehicles left parked on streets scheduled for street sweeping.

Elkins sweeps streets Monday-Friday during the spring, summer, and fall, visiting each street once per week. The purpose of the program is to reduce the amount of litter and debris on city streets, both to reduce strain on the wastewater treatment plant and to maintain a visually attractive streetscape.

Notification of cancelled street-sweeper runs will be issued when possible. However, when the sweeper route is cut short due to mechanical problems, inclement weather, operator emergencies, or other factors beyond our control, it is not always possible to issue such notifications. The best practice is to establish a routine of moving vehicles on the appointed day and continue that practice weekly until the end of sweeper season.

For schedule and other information: www.bit.ly/ElkinsStreetSweeper.

Please contact the Operations Department with questions: 304-636-1414, Ext. 1437 ; spoe@cityofelkinswv.com.

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Mayor Announces New Committees, Committee Memberships

Establishes Ad Hoc Collaboration and Marketing Committee and Addiction and Homeless Resources Task Force

Elkins, W. Va., April 7, 2021: Mayor Jerry Marco has made changes to Elkins council committee memberships and announced the formation of a new ad hoc Collaboration and Marketing Committee and a new inter-agency Addiction and Homeless Resources Task Force.

Under the new city charter adopted by council last year, Elkins mayors are granted authority to decide the membership of council’s standing committees and may also establish and appoint members of ad hoc committees. By longstanding custom, committee memberships are typically updated immediately following the city’s biannual elections.

Mayor Marco explained that the purpose of the new Collaboration and Marketing Committee is to further strengthen lines of communication between city officials and other agencies, organizations, and stakeholders in the Elkins community. Committee members will be charged with reducing duplication of efforts and increasing collaboration communitywide toward a goal of making Elkins even more appealing and attractive to new residents and businesses. Appointed to this committee are Councilors Charles S. Friddle, III; Nanci Bross-Fregonara; Clint Higgins; and Linda Vest.

The Addiction and Homeless Resources Task Force will consist of one council member, the chief of the Elkins Police Department, and the Randolph County sheriff. There will be at least four citizen members, as well. This body will also look for opportunities to reduce duplication of efforts, but specifically in the areas of addiction and homelessness prevention and response. According to Marco, task force members will seek and share information about available strategies and resources, as well as identifying and advocating for needed new resources.

Prior to adoption of the new charter, there were five standing council committees, and these are now stipulated as permanent: Finance, Rules & Ordinances, Municipal Properties, Public Safety, and Personnel. The table below shows the previous and new membership of each.

Committee Previous Membership New Membership
Finance Charles Friddle, III (chair)
Carman Metheny
Marilynn Cuonzo
Mike Hinchman (chair)
Rob Chenoweth
Christopher Lowther
Rules & Ordinances Linda Vest (chair)
Mike Hinchman
Rob Chenoweth
Nanci Bross-Fregonara (chair)
Clint Higgins
Marilynn Cuonzo
Municipal Properties Marilynn Cuonzo (chair)
Christopher Lowther
Karen Wilmoth
Marilynn Cuonzo (chair)
Charles Friddle, III
Judy Guye
Public Safety David Parker (chair)
Linda Vest
Mike Hinchman
David Parker (chair)
Judy Guye
Mike Hinchman
Personnel Carman Metheny (chair)
David Parker
Judy Guye
Rob Chenoweth (chair)
Linda Vest
Christopher Lowther

 

The Finance Committee has announced that it will continue to meet first Mondays at 10 a.m. Public Safety will continue to meet second Mondays at 10 a.m. The other committees have not yet announced the dates/times of their regular meetings.

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Elkins Announces New GIS Department

Elkins, W. Va., March 31, 2021: The establishment of a new department within the Elkins city government will enable City of Elkins to take even better advantage of modern digital tools and techniques for analyzing and presenting important data. Ben Martin, formerly an AmeriCorps member working with Elkins Main Street, has been hired as the city’s first Geographic Information Systems (GIS) technician and the sole member of the city’s new GIS Department.

The term GIS refers to specialized hardware, software, and personnel organized for the purpose of gathering, managing, and analyzing data with geospatial components. Most associated with the field of geography, GIS combines non-spatial data, such as demographics, records, or other details, with a spatial component, such as an address, coordinate, or boundary. Adding a spatial component to data allows GIS technicians to perform a range of analyses to better understand how data is related, where those relationships exist in the world around us, and what insights can be obtained from these relationships.

“While GIS tools help collect and discover new insights into data, GIS is most well-known for the ability to produce maps, and for good reason,” said Martin. “Without accurate, easily understood maps, the most profound insights from data won’t be visible to the end user. A lot of the efficiencies from GIS in local government come from being able to share information effectively with the public, elected officials, and city employees, and maps are a great tool for doing so.”

Indeed, one of the first priorities for the new department will involve mapping, specifically to capture the huge amount of infrastructure information that is currently recorded only on old paper maps and in the heads of longtime city employees.

“Right now, we have to rely more than we want to on human memory when it comes to locating key pieces of underground infrastructure,” says Bob Pingley, the city’s operations manager. “It will be a big step forward to be able to start systematically mapping all of that so that all city departments can access the information.”

The GIS technician will also collect data on new infrastructure components, such as the replacement remote-read water meters currently being installed citywide, as they go into the ground.

“The value of having every one of these water meters in a GIS database is not just being able to see them on a map and locate them more easily in the field, it’s being able to easily access information about each one, like its installation date, maintenance history, and other details that can save our crews time troubleshooting problems or making maintenance decisions,” Pingley says. “That’s just one of many examples of how GIS can help us by centralizing information in one easy-to-access place.”

Other high-priority projects for the GIS Department include managing the public-facing dilapidated properties dashboard that will come online during 2021 and coordinating sharing city address information with county E911 and addressing officials. GIS solutions can also help improve interdepartmental data sharing, support timesaving use of mobile devices in the field and enable streamlined communication between citizens and government officials.

Martin has already begun deploying GIS applications on the city’s GIS homepage (coewv.maps.arcgis.com).

“As quick demo projects, we’ve put up apps for exploring results from the 2019 and 2021 city elections, as well as a dashboard to help city residents figure out what ward they’re in for Spring Cleanup,” says Martin. “These are just simple first steps, but they give a taste of what GIS can do for Elkins. I’m really excited about building out these offerings and seeing what Elkins can accomplish with GIS tools.”

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