WV’s flood-recovery program suffers another black eye

July 21, 2018

The bad optics for those put in charge of a program to help people affected by the devastating flooding in West Virginia in June 2016 have gotten worse.

In recent months, plenty of questions have been raised about the relatively little progress made by the RISE West Virginia program. It was established in the state Department of Commerce to use $150 million in federal money received in May 2017 to help flood victims rebuild homes wiped out by high waters more than two years ago.

But to date, the program has spent less than $1.5 million, with more than a third of that on administrative costs. Less than a dozen homes for flood victims have been completed. One of the concerns was the awarding of a contract that grew in size but was not authorized per state standards. State lawmakers are investigating to find out what went wrong, and several state workers involved with the program are no longer employed, including former Commerce Secretary Woody Thrasher.

Making this picture worse is word that came last week about how some of the federal flood-recovery money was spent. Findings of research by the state Auditor’s Office presented to the Joint Legislative Committee on Flooding show the Department of Commerce used at least $10,500 of that federal flood-recovery money on a September 2017 retreat at the Stonewall Resort, a AAA Four Diamond-rated facility in Roanoke, according to a report by the Charleston Gazette-Mail.

In total, the state spent about $21,000 on that trip, which included officials in the RISE WV program, including several who are no longer employed by the state, as well as various Department of Commerce officials. The first day of the two day gathering—called the West Virginia Community Advancement and Development Impact Summit— included an update on RISEWV and the state’s Community Development Block Grant program, while day two was focused on broadband. Overall, the summit was intended to “discuss the aligning of operations,” the Gazette-Mail reported.

A letter of agreement between the state and the resort shows the trip included a cocktail reception and a plated-dinner banquet, the newspaper reported.

A spokeswoman from the Department of Commerce told the Gazette-Mail that meetings such as the 2017 Impact Summit were included in the disaster recovery action plan. In that case, it was a bad plan.

Two problems here.

First, it’s questionable whether any taxpayer money should be spent on retreats at a resort. Surely there are state-owned buildings in Charleston where officials can gather to discuss initiatives without having to pay for overnight accommodations, travel and a banquet.

Second, to use money intended to help disaster victims in such a way is inexcusable. The fact that the program has failed to make much of a dent in rebuilding housing for those victims only makes it worse, in retrospect. It all suggests that a summit intended to “align operations” failed miserably in serving the people who most needed it.

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