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Kanawha County Commission opposes WVAWC rate hike approved by PSC

CHARLESTON, W.Va. — As West Virginia American Water Company officials work to hammer out the details of a new rate increase approved by the state Public Service Commission, members of the Kanawha County Commission are voicing their opposition to the hike.

Lance Wheeler

“When does this end? It seems like every six months one of these utility companies will get approval for an increase and they’ll come back to the PSC we need more. There needs to be a plan for this,” Commission President Lance Wheeler said on Tuesday’s “580 Live” with Dave Allen heard on MetroNews flagship station 580-WCHS in Charleston.

The PSC on Saturday approved an 8 percent rate hike for water and sewer rates for WVAWC, which is significantly less than the 22.5 percent increase that the utility was seeking. The official filing was closer to $44 million last May.

The average water customer’s bill increased by $5.69 a month and the average sewer customer’s bill increased by $5.59. The change took effect Saturday.

Wheeling said the increase doesn’t seem like much, but that’s on top of other increased spending residents have to think about.

“We have to budget, as individuals, what we’re going to be spending for whether it’s buying a new car or buying a new house. The $5 a month doesn’t sound like a lot, but when you start adding in the Mountaineer Gas, the electric company, the water company, this is really starting to add up,” he said.

WVAWC spokesperson Megan Hannah wrote in an email to MetroNews the company has received the order from the PSC.

Megan Hannah

“At this time, the company is still reviewing the contents of this order to determine customer rate impacts. Any numbers that have been reported so far have not been verified by our company,” Hannah stated.

The water company proposed the rate hike to pay for water and wastewater upgrades that have been made since 2020 and for upgrades projected through Feb. 2025. Those investments total approximately $340 million.

Wheeler said he understands infrastructure upgrades are critical, but said the utility needs to get a better handle on its spending despite rising costs.

“We understand that with inflation in the last three years prices are going up and the cost of business is going up. There needs to be some type of increase for these utility companies so they can continue to upgrade because we are currently in a situation of the past 20 years that the infrastructure is falling apart. They need this money now to catch up. I understand that, but what we need to also make sure that we’re doing is have a plan in place,” he said.

The company defended its proposed hike during a Dec. 2023 evidentiary hearing.

WVAWC has more than 560,000 customers in West Virginia.

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Public meeting on next Corridor H project set for tonight

CHARLESTON, W.Va. — The West Virginia Division of Highways will have planners available this evening at Tucker County High School to answer questions about plans for the next stretch of Corridor H.

The Public Information Workshop will be held from 4 p.m. to 7 p.m. at the school in the Hambleton community. There will be information available on the plans for construction of the nearly 9-mile stretch of the four-lane highway between Parsons and Davis. The meeting is in compliance with the National Environmental Policy Act and Section 106 of the National Historic Preservation Act.

No formal presentation will be made, but officials will have handouts on the project details. They will also be available to answer questions and discuss the project. The public will have the opportunity to ask questions and submit written comments on the project as well.

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Mercer County sheriffs continue to investigate shots fired incident in a Bluefield armory parking lot

BLUEFIELD W.Va. — Mercer County detectives are still looking into a shots fired situation that occurred in the parking lot of the Brushfork Armory in Bluefield, but they say they are having difficulty getting witnesses to cooperate.

Authorities say the incident was a result of an altercation that broke out on Friday, Feb. 23 following a high school boys basketball game between Bluefield and Summers County.

Mercer County Sheriff’s Department Detective Corporal Matthew Hatfield told MetroNews they are currently following up with the leads they have on the situation.

“We are still attempting to speak with individuals and persons of interest involving the shooting,” he said.

However, Hatfield said some who were at the scene have been reluctant to speak with law enforcement.

“I mean, it’s one of those situations where we have to be methodical with what we’re doing considering we have no one who is willing to cooperate with us as far as what they saw,” said Hatfield.

Once the incident was reported, those inside the armory at the time were put under a shelter-in-place order. No injuries were reported.

Hatfield said the incident was not related to the game itself.

He said officers are not certain why people aren’t talking, whether it’s out of fear or some other specific reason. However, Hatfield said it’s not the first time this has happened in the area.

“People are just not willing to come forward and give information, and this has happened a few times as of recent involving shootings in Mercer County,” said Hatfield.

The teams and fans were allowed to leave once the parking lot had been secured.

Mercer County School Superintendent Ed Toman posted this statement directly following the incident.

“We are heartbroken and outraged by the violence and shooting that took place tonight at the Brush Fork Armory parking lot after the high school boys’ basketball sectional athletic game between Bluefield High and Summers County High Schools. The incident had nothing to do with our school systems, our students, or tonight’s specific event; however, a group of individuals brought their issues to a facility and youth event that should always be safe for all,” Toman said.

“We greatly appreciate our local law enforcement, first responders and administration in their immediate response and willingness to provide help. I am confident justice will be served on the individuals who invoked fear and harm in our community. Please know we will do everything in our power to keep our students, staff, families and fans safe and incidents of this manner will not be tolerated,” Toman added.

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Prosecutors comb through digital evidence in Summers County sexual assault, strangulation case

HINTON, W.Va. — Defense motions have been filed in the case of a Summers County man charged with sexually assaulting and strangling 10 women.

Matthew Keaton

A hearing was held in Summers County Circuit Court Monday for Matthew Keaton, 32, of Pipestem.

Summers County Prosecuting Attorney Kristin Cook said one of the motions by Keaton’s attorney has to do with discovery issues regarding digital evidence.

“It’s a complicated case,” Cook told MetroNews Tuesday. “When you’re talking digital evidence, think of phones, think of iPads, think of computers, all of those different things that take time and store a lot of information that has to be sorted by all parties from the state and from the defense.”

Cook told Summers County Circuit Judge Robert Irons during a status hearing in Dec. 2023 the victims have hundreds of images of Keaton’s alleged assaults.

Keaton was indicted by a Summers County grand jury in Nov. 2022 on 21 counts including charges of sexual assault, sexual abuse, strangulation, possession and production of child pornography and criminal invasion of privacy. He faces similar charges in Mercer County.

State Police arrested Keaton in Oct. 2021 after the women reported being drugged and violently raped while being recorded.

The accusations date back to when Keaton was 18 years old. All of the victims knew Keaton and were different ages, police said.

“Some were approximately 10 years younger than he was,” Trooper First Class J.C. Woods of the Hinton State Police Detachment told MetroNews in 2021. “Some were girlfriends that got away or one-night stands.”

Cook said she hopes this case heads to trial and that Keaton is ultimately convicted on all charges.

“Basically, that justice is served for all parties involved and that we make sure a jury hears the facts of the case and that a decision that is rendered will be up to the jury,” she said.

Keaton is currently being held in the Southern Regional Jail without bond.

Another status hearing is scheduled for April 12 in Summers County Circuit Court.

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Booking photos would be kept from public view under bill passed by House

Booking photographs of criminal suspects could no longer be made public by state corrections officials under a bill passed by the House of Delegates.

After about an hour of debate, delegates passed the bill on a 54-46 vote. 

As the internet search engines have made it possible to come across mugshots years after a criminal charge, some citizens who have experienced arrests have complained that those records have made it challenging to put the past behind or navigate the job market. Advocates for the bill say they have those people in mind.

David Kelly

Delegate David Kelly, R-Tyler, described a “wall of shame” with mugshots on social media sites.

“These third-party people, they don’t take them down automatically, so that young person’s life can be forever turned upside down because of a mistake that was made. It’s almost possible to redeem yourself.”

West Virginia media organizations and some delegates have countered that mugshots of arrests represent community news and that prohibiting access amounts to prior restraint. Delegates critical of the bill also contended mugshots are a public safety tool as well as a kind of protection against secret arrests.

Brandon Steele

“It’s fundamental that we notify the public of who we have in custody,” said Delegate Brandon Steele, R-Raleigh. “This bill makes West Virginia less safe. This bill makes the state less secure.”

House Bill 4621 says “photographs of a person for identification purposes taken by the Division of Corrections and Rehabilitation or any other county or state jail facility upon booking into the facility are not public records and shall not be disclosed to the public.”

There are some exceptions, such as cases of fugitives where releasing a photo could help identify a fleeing suspect or if officials determine the person is an imminent threat. Mugshots can also be released after a conviction or a guilty plea.

But, generally, the bill says “these booking photographs shall not be published or disseminated to the public.”

Geoff Foster

“Protect the innocent people that are not convicted of these crimes,” said Delegate Geoff Foster, R-Putnam.

The bill has specific directions for outlets that publish mugshots to the internet with the main goal of seeking payment for taking them down. Those outlets have to take down the photographs upon request for people who have been found not guilty or had their charge dropped.

The bill defines and differentiates news outlets from those remove -for-pay sites. Nevertheless, news outlets would not be able to publish booking photographs if they are no longer made public.

“As a news organization, I think we should be able to publish the news and publish photographs and report the news,” said Delegate Mike Hornby, R-Berkeley.

Keith Marple

Delegate Keith Marple, R-Harrison, spoke against the bill and said booking photos are useful for people to be on the watchout in their neighborhoods.

“Citizens need to see these pictures, as well as the officers, to know who’s committing crimes in their neighborhood,” Marple said. “It’s a useful tool for police work and for citizens.”

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Kroger executive defends offer to UFCW Local 400

RICHMOND, Va. — Although the bargaining team of the United Food and Commercial Workers Union doesn’t like the offer, Kroger is defending their proposed contract now before nearly 3,000 West Virginia employees.

“Our strong position is this is a great offer,” said Lori Raya, President of Kroger Mid-Atlantic. “We’re encouraging our associates to insure they understand our last, best, and final offer we have presented to the UFCW Local 400 and really understand how that affects them as individual associates.”

The workers will vote on the measure Wednesday and Thursday and the votes will be tallied on Friday. A spokesperson for the union told MetroNews earlier this week they are urging their rank and file members to reject the contract offer saying the wage offering in the deal comes to about a 12 percent payraise with the inflation rate at 18 percent. But, Raya disagreed and said it was actually the best wage improvement ever offered to their West Virginia employees.

“We’re giving bigger paychecks to everyone in the bargaining unit. The offer benefits every associate in the collective bargaining agreement making their paychecks grow by 26 percent. That’s what our offer is worth,” Raya said.

She also defended the offer they have made on health insurance as a strong offering.

“This offer maintains industry leading healthcare at 72 percent less than the average cost for West Virginia families. For a Kroger associate they would be paying $134 versus the West Virginia average of $486 and we’re holding that level despite the growing healthcare costs,” she explained.

The union also blasted the Kroger’s offer of $25 BILLION to buy rival grocery store chain Albertsons. Raya noted those two things have nothing to do with each other and have no bearing on the proposals in the tentative contract agreement.

Raya added they are willing to talk to any associate to explain the contract offer and how it will benefit them. She hoped each of their employees in Local 400 would take time to consider all the contract offer holds before they vote on Wednesday or Thursday.

“From a wage, healthcare, and vacation prospective, we’re strongly urging our associates to ratify this contract,” she said.

The agreement covers around 3,000 workers at 38 Kroger stores. Most of the stores are in West Virginia, with a handful in neighboring Kentucky and Oho.

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Opposition mounts to Cabell County school excess levy as discussions continue to fund libraries, parks

HUNTINGTON, W.Va. — The Cabell County Democratic Executive Committee says they plan to go door-to-door to urge residents to vote against a school excess levy this May that would strip funding from local libraries and parks.

Chair Amanda Beach-Burge said the committee held a joint meeting Monday night with members of Cabell County’s Republican Party to shed light on why funding should continue for the Cabell County Public Library and the Greater Huntington Park and Recreation District.

“They benefit our entire community. The parks are super important to our kids play, to adults’ activities, for seniors to get exercise and the libraries are really our city center,” Beach-Burge told MetroNews Tuesday.

The bipartisan effort comes after the state Supreme Court last week reversed a lower court decision and ruled in favor of the Cabell County Board of Education. The ruling gave school board members the power to continue their plan of eliminating nearly $2 million from their budget that has typically gone towards parks and libraries for years.

The park district typically receives approximately $500,000 from the excess levy while libraries receive about $1.5 million.

Voters will decide whether to approve the five-year levy in the May Primary election.

Cabell County Schools Superintendent Dr. Ryan Saxe and other school officials have been meeting with library and parks representatives over the last few days to discuss a potential alternative plan to offer some funding, but not all.

Beach-Burge said they haven’t heard any clear-cut details about ongoing discussions.

“There’s just no real path forward and I don’t think there will be a compromise that allows the parks and libraries to really come together,” she said.

A spokesperson from Cabell County Schools released the following statement to MetroNews Monday morning on behalf of Saxe, Cabell County Public Library Executive Director Breana Bowen and GHPRD Executive Director Kathy McKenna:

“Representatives from the Cabell County Public Library, Greater Huntington Park & Recreation District, and Cabell County Schools met today to discuss the 2025 Excess Levy. All three organizations are taking information back to their respective leadership teams to work on proposals to be discussed again next week. More information will be shared if we are able to finalize any possible agreement.”

Saxe previously told MetroNews the cuts are necessary due to financial pressure caused by inflation, a lack of additional funding from the COVID pandemic and low student enrollment.

“While we very much value and appreciate what it is that our beautiful parks and wonderful libraries provide to the community, doing so at the expense of the school district’s budget is something that we have to be able to prioritize our students and our classrooms first,” Saxe said in an Aug. 2023 interview.

Beach-Burge claims the school district has poor spending habits.

“There has been a lot of spending from the Board of Education, a lot of new projects and a lot of projects that go way over budget. We feel as if the money has been mismanaged from the board’s side, but it should not be a problem of the entire community,” she said.

The levy has provided funding to the library system since 1967 and parks district since 1983.

Beach-Burge said they fear a loss of funding will result in a loss of library branches and park programs. She said there’s a number of students in the county who rely on public libraries for internet access.

“Only 70 percent have access to the internet. That means that 30 percent of the county is without it. We can’t have libraries closing down with these kids that have iPads,” she said.

The school board voted to strip the funding in Aug. 2023. The park district then filed a lawsuit against the school board. In November, a Cabell County Circuit Court judge ruled in favor of parks and libraries which resulted in the BOE appealing that decision to the state Supreme Court.

Del. Matthew Rohrbach, R-Cabell, is also urging voters to turn down the levy.

“The park system is great. In Huntington and Cabell County, people want it. We value our libraries. I think if that’s the choice that people are given, I think the school levy is going to fail overwhelmingly,” he said on last week’s MetroNews “Talkline.”

If the levy fails in May, there will be another chance for the school board to put it up for a vote in November.

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Plea deal accepted in Monongalia County drug-related killing

MORGANTOWN, W.Va. — One of two suspects in a Monongalia County drug-related murder has pleaded guilty.

Arlo Romano (WVRJA)

Arlo Romano, 43, was originally charged with first-degree murder along with Cleotis “Ghost” Eppes, 48, of Harper Woods, Michigan, in the May 2022 drug debt shooting death of Matt Moore on Round Bottom Road.

Romano agreed to plea guilty Monday to second-degree murder in a deal with prosecutors. Monongalia County Circuit Judge Paul Gwaltney accepted the plea agreement during Monday’s hearing.

Romano was on the run for about five days in June 2022 while deputies with the Monongalia County Sheriff’s Department closed a section of Chestnut Ridge Park during the search.

Deputies said Romano was able to steal a motorcycle from a Preston County resident and escape to the Uniontown area, where he was arrested following a shoplifting call at the local Walmart.

Romano faces up to 40 years in prison when he is sentenced by Gwaltney on May 7.

Eppes remains in jail without bail.

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New-look James Monroe Mavericks continue quest for Class A three-peat

MORGANTOWN, W.Va. — Greg Carey and Joe Brocato conclude their boys basketball playoff previews by taking a look at the top contenders in Class A.

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MetroNews This Morning 2-27-24

Today on MetroNews This Morning:

–House passes a bill providing exemptions from required childhood vaccinations

–Women’s Bill of Rights heads to the Senate Floor

–Kroger contract will be before rank and file union workers this week while workers at AHF Products remain on strike

–In Sports, WVU mounts a furious comeback only to fall in overtime at Kansas State

Listen to “MetroNews This Morning 2-27-24” on Spreaker.

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