City Hall News: November 21, 2020

Elkins, W. Va., November 21, 2020: No council, committee, board, or commission meetings are scheduled next week. City hall will be closed Thursday and Friday, in observance of the holiday.

Garbage will not be collected on Monday or Thursday. Garbage normally collected Mondays will be collected starting at 6 a.m. on Sunday, Nov. 22. Garbage normally collected Thursdays will be collected starting at 6 a.m. on Wednesday, November 25.

Garbage normally collected Tuesdays, Wednesdays, and Fridays will be collected on the regular schedule.

The Office of the City Treasurer is hosting another adoptable cat from the Randolph County Humane Society. Jerry is a short-haired, neutered, vaccinated, and microchipped male. For a limited time, the humane society is offering a reduced holiday adoption fee of just $20. If you think you might be interested in adopting Jerry, please put on a mask and stop by city hall to meet him. For more information, call RCHS: ​(304) 636-7844.

The Operations Department requests that bagged glass and yard waste not be left outside the gates of or next to containers at the recycling drop-off site on Jones Drive, near Robert E. Lee Avenue and the Flood Control Road. This practice creates unsightly and unsanitary conditions, and cleaning the resulting mess diverts city personnel from more valuable work.

Through December 14, Toys for Tots collection boxes will be located in the city hall lobby and at WalMart, Big Lots, Dollar General, and Walgreens. This program, coordinated this year by Phil Gainer Community Center manager Chris Lee, provides presents for area children who might otherwise go without.

All of us at City of Elkins wish you a happy, safe Thanksgiving celebration.

Elkins Demolishes Fire-Damaged Structure on South Randolph

Elkins, W. Va., November 20, 2020: On Wednesday, a demolition crew contracted by City of Elkins tore down a derelict structure at 506 South Randolph Avenue in Elkins. The demolition was authorized by a Randolph County Circuit Court order. The city does not have title to the property and so cannot auction it, but a city lien against it seeks to recoup approximately $40,000 in demolition costs at the time of any future sale.

The property at 506 South Randolph Avenue is one of several tracts of real estate located in Elkins that are part of the estate of Roger G. Fussell, who operated rental properties throughout the area until his death, in 2009. Because Fussell’s will remains contested, this property and his other real estate holdings cannot be distributed to his heirs and so remain the property of his estate, for which his daughter, Andrea Simmons, is the executrix.

506 South Randolph, damaged by fire and years of neglect.

Already vacant when it was severely damaged by fire in 2014, the house at 506 South Randolph Avenue was never repaired by its owner and its condition continued to worsen. City of Elkins monitored the property and repeatedly requested that the Fussell estate address the problems associated with the increasingly dilapidated and dangerous structure. After issuing multiple citations, city code enforcement condemned the structure, then sought court approval for demolition, which was granted late last year.

“Because of due process and other legal requirements for dealing with these kinds of properties, getting to the point where we can demolish can take years under the best of circumstances,” says Geraldine Roberts, Elkins City Attorney. “For a property owned by an estate that is still open because of various legal issues, the situation is even more complicated and takes even longer to resolve.”

Another source of delay for this project was the need for extensive asbestos abatement, a highly regulated, time-consuming, and expensive process.

“Testing for and safely removing a large amount of asbestos slowed us down on this one, but everything came together to get it taken care of this week,” says Bob Pingley, the city’s operations manager. “That house has been a longtime eyesore in a highly traveled area, so it’s nice to know it’s finally gone.”

It is an open question whether City of Elkins will ever be reimbursed for the approximately $40,000 in demolition expenses, a relatively high price tag for a residential demolition resulting in large part from the asbestos abatement.

After demolition, the remains of 506 South Randolph Avenue await disposal.

“Even if the city demolishes a dangerous structure as an immediate safety hazard, we don’t automatically obtain title and might never recoup our costs,” says Roberts. “As a standard practice, we’ve placed a lien against this property, but that lien will not necessarily be paid at the time of any sale. For one thing, there may be other liens ahead of ours and frankly it is unlikely the property would sell for enough to cover our lien anyway.”

Roberts explains that demolitions like this one must often simply be budgeted for, like any other service cities provide, without expectation of reimbursement.

“We’ll seek every possible remedy that we can in this case, but unfortunately, a lot of the time cities and counties simply have to accept these costs as part of their responsibility to protect people from dangerous structures and help maintain the value of the surrounding properties.”

Elkins Adding GIS Technician to Operations Department

Elkins, W. Va., November 19, 2020: As city governments across the nation increasingly integrate digital technology into their administration and operations, it is becoming more and more common to find Geographic Information Systems (GIS) specialists among the ranks of municipal employees. City of Elkins is about to take this step as well. The city is advertising for its first GIS technician and hopes to bring a qualified candidate aboard within the next several months.

GIS is most commonly associated with mapping, and while mapping is a big part of what the city’s new GIS technician will be doing, there is much more to this field. GIS solutions can help improve interdepartmental data sharing, support timesaving use of mobile devices in the field, and enable streamlined communication between citizens and government officials.

“A well-run GIS program can not only provide significant time and cost savings but also enable all kinds of new capabilities that can help us expand the information and services we provide to our customers,” says Bob Pingley, the city’s operations manager and the person who will supervise the new GIS technician.

For example, the City of Oak Hill has had a GIS program since 2011 and hired a GIS coordinator in 2014. As can be seen at www.oakhillwv.gov/opendata, and despite the fact that the Oak Hill GIS department continues to have only one employee, the city has steadily deployed a large number of GIS web applications, or services based on the city’s GIS data, that anyone with internet access can take advantage of.

Oak Hill’s free, GIS-based web applications include the Oak Hill Yard Sales App, a “Where Do I Vote” application, the Oak Hill Citizen Problem Reporter, a Street Paving Projects Dashboard, interactive ward and zoning maps, a portal for accessing data concerning an ongoing soil contamination issue that may threaten the community’s water supply, and many more.

“We have a whole list of our own projects waiting for the new hire, naturally,” says Pingley. “We’ll be bringing a new public-facing dilapidated properties dashboard online next year, and managing that will be a key part of their duties, as will managing the city’s address maps and database and coordinating data sharing with county addressing officials.”

One high-priority task for the new GIS technician will be to capture the huge amount of infrastructure information that is currently contained 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 Pingley. “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 as they go into the ground.

“Another early project where we will put this person to work is mapping the replacement remote-read water meters that are about to be installed throughout the city,” says Pingley.

Pingley says that this project offers a good example of the value available from the ability of a GIS database to associate nonspatial information, such as notes about recent maintenance work, with a geographic point, such as a given water meter.

“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,” he says. “That’s just one of many examples of how GIS can help us by centralizing information in one easy-to-access place.”

Pingley says he is looking forward to exploring what GIS will be able to offer City of Elkins and the city’s residents, business owners, and other stakeholders.

“It’s fair to say that we are starting to really see the limits of what you might call the twentieth-century approach to mapping and geographic information,” says Pingley. “It will be great to see what Elkins can accomplish with twenty-first century mapping tools and the expertise to get the most value out of them.”

Costs for 2021 Downtown Flowers Program

At its November 5, 2020 meeting, the Elkins council approved a contract for labor and other costs of the 2021 downtown flowers program. The contract covers planting, watering, and related services starting in May 2021 and continuing into the fall.

The contract, for $24,500, covers labor, equipment and some other costs but does not include $8,000 in plants and related supplies. Both categories of costs are explained further below.

The 2021 season will see three phases of plantings. This expands the program over previous years, when there was only one planting. Even so, the budgeted cost for the 2021 program is lower than that of the 2020 and 2019 seasons.

Program Scope and Overall Costs

  • This program places flowers and other plants in 54 baskets, “hay racks,” and planters around downtown
  • Under the 2021 contract—in an expansion from past years—plantings will occur in three phases. In September, summer flowers will be replaced with mums. In October, mums will be replaced with pine garland and warm winter lights.
  • Cost comparison between the proposed and past contracts:
    • Cost of 2019 season: $36,541
    • Cost of 2020 season: $33,100
    • Proposed cost of 2021 season (i.e., the contract + supplies): $32,500
      • Labor, mums, and related supplies: $24,500 (included in contract; May-June paid in FY 2021; July-Oct. paid in FY 2022)
      • Plants for summer mixed baskets and related supplies: $8000 (not included in contract; invoiced separately)

Contracted Services ($24,500)

  • Planning, ordering, and coordination with grower each fall
  • Soil preparation, planting, and hanging: 4-5 days in May
  • Daily rounds of 54 watering stops for 7 days/week May-Forest Festival
  • Evening rounds for pesticide/fungicide application as needed
  • Liability and truck insurance; water pumps, hoses, fuses, watering heads, and gaskets; and fuel

Supply Costs ($8,000)

Breakdown of $8,000 in supply costs for the upcoming season:

  • 12 replacement basket liners: $500
  • 500 flower plugs: $6,250
  • Soil, additives, fertilizers, and treatments: $1,250

Payment Schedule:

The above $8000 in supply costs and two months of the 2021 season’s labor costs ($9,800) would be paid out of the FY 2021 budget.

The remaining $14,700 in labor costs, as well as next spring’s startup costs and the first two months of next year’s watering (if contracted for) would come out of the FY 2022 budget.

Contracted vs. In-House Cost

This program incurs substantial expense. Some might wonder if City of Elkins could manage this program at lower cost if it used city staff instead of contracting for these services.

Once the flowers have been planted, they require daily watering. One way to determine whether city staff could manage this program at lower cost is to consider what the hourly expense of providing watering services would be.

To water the flowers, the current contractor uses two people and a tank-equipped truck. Based on past years, this two-person team spends about 9 person hours a day watering (5 minutes X 54 stops = 4.5 hours X 2 people = 9 person hours) over about 160 days, for a total of about 1,440 person hours. At an overall contract cost of $24,500, watering services performed by this contractor therefore costs the city about $17 an hour ($24,500/1,440 = $17.01).

Under the current City of Elkins pay plan, our lowest-paid employees, who earn $10.39/hour, cost the city about $20 gross when taxes and benefits are figured in. For a team of two city employees to provide the watering service described above, it would therefore cost the city not $24,500 but $28,800—and that’s without figuring in the time-and-a-half cost of overtime and holiday pay that would be incurred for seven-day-a-week watering.

This comparison leaves out some additional important factors.

First, the city does not currently have a truck outfitted for this kind of work and would have to purchase one, raising our cost even higher.

Second, to simplify the above calculation, we left some details out.

We did not include the hours our contractor also spends on planning, basket installation and planting, and pesticide and fungicide treatments—all of which is also paid out of the $24,500 contract cost. The hours city staff would need to spend on this would raise our cost even higher.

We also did not include the following expense categories, all of which is also to be paid out of the contract amount of $24,500 for the 2021 season: liability and truck insurance; water pumps, hoses, fuses, watering heads, and gaskets; and fuel.

To summarize, all of this is provided by our contractor for a total contracted price of $24,500. If City of Elkins took over running this program, watering alone would cost $28,800 and a new truck would also need to be purchased and equipped. It should also be pointed out that the employees used by our contractor to provide watering services are experienced with the care and management of plants, so—as they water—they are also able to evaluate and make recommendations concerning the plants’ health. It might not be realistic to expect a similar level of knowledge and experience from city staff.

Conclusion

Council has approved expenditures for this program in support of the city’s long-term strategic goals of encouraging tourism and transforming the downtown streetscape to be more inviting for residents, customers of existing businesses, and prospective new businesses.

The flowers are in place during multiple important city events that draw significant numbers of visitors downtown each year, including the Ramps and Rail Festival, Independence Day weekend, the Augusta Heritage Festival, the Mountain State Forest Festival, Elkins Main Street First Friday events, and the weekly Mountain State Street Machines cruise-ins. The mayor and other elected officials report hearing compliments about the flowers from visitors.

Given council’s decision to continue this annual program, City of Elkins is convinced that contracting for the needed services is the most cost-effective approach.

Charter Change Ordinance Available for Download

At Thursday’s 7 p.m. meeting, council takes up the charter-change ordinance for final reading. Council can only approve charter changes against which no objections were entered by the end of the Nov. 9 public hearing.

Click here and look for the “Nov. 18 Update” heading, where you can download a PDF of the ordinance that council will be looking at on Thursday.

Objected-to language is struck out, with replacement language (if any) in bold type. As a result of the major unresolved objections, this ordinance would retain the current form of city government (i.e., Mayor-Council, not Manager-Mayor) and ward-based election of council members.

The period for submitting objections has closed. Remaining objections may be retracted by the original objector at any point until the vote on the ordinance at Thursday’s meeting.

More information about the charter-change process is available here.

Modified Garbage Collection Schedule for Week of Thanksgiving

In observance of Thanksgiving, Elkins City Hall will be closed Thursday and Friday (11/26-27).

During the week of Thanksgiving, there will be no garbage collection on Monday (11/23) or Thursday (11/26).

Garbage normally collected Mondays will be collected starting at 6 a.m. on Sunday (11/22).

Garbage normally collected Thursdays will be collected starting at 6 a.m. on Wednesday (11/25).

Garbage normally collected Tuesdays, Wednesdays, and Fridays will be collected on the regular schedule.

City Hall News: November 14, 2020

Elkins, W. Va., November 14, 2020: Council meets in regular session Thursday. Also meeting this week are council’s Municipal Properties Committee, the Elkins Sanitary Board, the Elkins Tree Board, the Elkins Historic Landmarks Commission, and the Elkins Parks and Recreation Commission.

The Sanitary Board, which oversees the city’s sewer system, meets Monday at 3:15 p.m. Agenda items include an update on the ongoing Phase II Sewer Project (stormwater separation), discussion of the Sylvester Drive Sewer Study, and review of financial information.

The Tree Board meets at 5:30 p.m. on Monday to discuss greenspace and interpretive opportunities for city parks. The Historic Landmarks Commission meets Tuesday, at 4 p.m.

On Wednesday, at 9 a.m., the Municipal Properties Committee will review draft design documents for paving, lighting, and other improvements to both the city employee and public parking areas behind city hall.  Also on Wednesday, at 5 p.m., the Parks and Recreation Commission meets to hear reports and review its ongoing pandemic precautions.

The agenda for Thursday’s council meeting is not yet complete. One item will be the final reading of an ordinance adopting any charter changes that were not objected to before the end of the November 9 public hearing.

As a reminder, per an order of the W. Va. Supreme Court, anyone appearing in Elkins Municipal Court, whether as a defendant or witness, must wear a face covering or be barred from entering. If you are on trial or under subpoena, this will be considered a failure to appear.

Fire Protection Service Fee bills will be mailed to customers with property outside the city on November 16. Utility bills are due November 18.

Reminder: Masks Required in Municipal Court

As a reminder, anyone appearing in Municipal Court, whether as a defendant or witness, must wear a face covering to reduce the risk of transmitting the COVID-19 virus.

People without face coverings will not be admitted to the courtroom. If you are on trial or under subpoena, this will be considered a failure to appear. These safety precautions are based on an order of the West Virginia Supreme Court.

Learn more here.

Governor Orders Masks at All Times in Public Buildings

Warns noncompliance could result in criminal charges, additional shutdowns

Elkins, W. Va., November 13, 2020: At today’s coronavirus briefing, Governor Jim Justice made mask-wearing mandatary “at all times” in businesses and other public buildings, ordered state public schools to offer remote instruction only Dec. 1-3, and postponed the start of the winter sports season. (His executive order is here.)

Observing that the state has recently set records for daily hospitalizations and use of ICU beds, Justice warned that people who refuse to wear masks and businesses who fail to require masks risk triggering another shutdown of non-essential businesses. He also said that people who fail to comply with his executive orders could be charged with obstruction of justice.

As of 10 a.m. this morning, the W. Va. DHHR coronavirus.wv.gov website reports 565 deaths from COVID-19 in the state since the start of the pandemic, including 11 deaths reported on Thursday alone. There are currently 8,531 active cases statewide.

In Randolph County, according to DHHR, conditions have been worsening rapidly during the last week. Over the last seven days, the county’s infection rate has increased from 14.94 to 24.39, or more than 60 percent, while the percentage of positive tests has increased from 4.44 to 5.47, an increase of almost 25 percent.

As of yesterday, the Randolph-Elkins Health Department is reporting 69 current active cases in Randolph County, including two hospitalized patients.

Two Randolph County residents have died of COVID-19 since the pandemic began.

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Elkins to Auction 3 Residential Properties Friday

Elkins, W. Va., November 10, 2020: At 10 a.m. this Friday, the City of Elkins will offer three residential properties for sale by auction, as-is, in the lobby of Elkins City Hall. Winning bidders will need to immediately remit 10 percent of their winning bids in the form of cash or a certified check and must pay the remaining balance within 30 days.

“Each of these properties followed a different path to this point, but they were all the subject of code enforcement actions and eventually the city was able to obtain deeds to all three,” says Geraldine Roberts, the Elkins city attorney. “The dilapidated structures have been demolished and removed, so these are bare plots of land. Potential bidders need to do their due diligence and understand any legal or physical limitations that might apply to how these properties may be used.”

The properties are:

  • 108 Orchard Street
  • 210 Cherokee Street,
  • 100 Adams Street (formerly 100 North Washington Avenue)

“Because of due process and other legal requirements for dealing with these kinds of properties, the journey from a derelict structure to a cleared piece of land that the city can auction off is always a long one,” says Roberts. “Even if the city demolishes a dangerous structure as an immediate safety hazard, we don’t automatically obtain title and might never recoup our costs. However, in these three cases, we were able to negotiate obtaining ownership from the owners of record, and that’s why we’re in a position to auction these properties off.”

Roberts hopes Elkins residents and others with a stake in the city will recognize these auctions as representing progress in the city’s code enforcement efforts.

“Elkins continues to have issues with neglected properties,” says Roberts, “but it’s important to recognize and celebrate the auction of these three properties as the success story it is.”

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