|Mt. Zion PSD will continue investigation|
By David Hedges, Publisher
The Mt. Zion Public Service District decided Monday to ignore their lawyer's advice and continue an investigation into their own operations.
Last September, after learning of billing problems, mounting debt and missing records, the Calhoun County Commission petitioned the W.Va. Public Service Commission to formally investigate the PSD's finances, record keeping and even the hiring of engineers and bidding procedures.
PSD members voted to support the investigation request.
Two months later, when PSD members went to the home of longtime PSD secretary-treasurer Wilma Mace to retrieve records for the investigation, Mace tendered her resignation. Mace, who cited illness as the reason, had served in the position for 26 years.
Monday morning, PSD attorney Tom Whittier and volunteer bookkeeper Norma Collins attended a meeting of the Calhoun County Commission and asked commissioners, without success, to withdraw their request for an investigation.
Commission President Bob Weaver attended Monday evening's PSD meeting at the Arnoldsburg Community Building and told PSD members they should make their position clear.
"If this PSD does not want the Calhoun County Commission to continue this investigation, you need to vote to do that," Weaver told PSD members Sharon Postalwait, Roscoe Gainer and Shirley Mace.
Weaver said Whittier had first claimed the investigation would delay funding for a $5.2 million water line extension, but the funding was awarded. He then said Whittier claimed the investigation might interfere with an emergency water rate increase, although that also turned out to be inaccurate.
Whittier said Monday the rate request was waiting on a report by the PSD accountant.
"I'm really unclear how this investigation is going to be a problem," Weaver said.
Weaver, a candidate for re-election, said Whittier even made comments to other courthouse officials that Weaver was holding up the water extension by asking for the investigation and it could cost him the election.
"I don't appreciate it one bit," Weaver told Whittier.
Weaver said a PSC attorney asked commissioners to drop the request for an investigation.
"I was appalled to hear their attorney say we need to move ahead," Weaver said. "There has to be some degree of accountability."
Gainer said he saw no problem with the investigation going forward, especially since it would not delay the water project or the rate increase.
"I think we have an obligation to find out what happened," Gainer said, "especially if there is no downside to continuing."
But Whittier said the investigation would tie up PSC employees and volunteers.
"It costs effort and time and attorney fees," he said.
He also said the PSC was already doing an investigation to determine if the PSD needed a rate increase.
Collins said the investigation would not determine if any money was stolen.
Weaver agreed, adding that estimates for a forensic investigation ranged from $35,000 to $40,000.
"We're doing an internal investigation for free," Collins said. "If we find something, we'll take it to the prosecuting attorney, if we have one."
The Calhoun prosecutor recently submitted her resignation.
Shirley Mace said several checks were written without invoices to back them up.
"We're trying to put a puzzle together without enough pieces," billing clerk Saundra Ballengee said.
Gainer said the work being done to recreate missing records from bank statements had to be done to get the records in order. He added that PSC staff working on the investigation were state employees who would be paid regardless.
"I think we're accountable to a whole bunch of people and we need to find out what happened," Gainer said.
Gainer moved to continue the investigation, which was approved unanimously by the PSD board.
The PSC investigation that was originally to be complete by February of this year has been delayed until January of next year.
In other business, engineer Jim Hildreth told the board that the $5.2 million water line extension would be in jeopardy if the PSD's accountant did not have the required certification in time for an April 26 loan closing.
Hildreth called the situation "critical" and said the closing would not likely be rescheduled.
The PSD's former accountant resigned for lack of payment, and the new accountant has just started. Whittier said he would contact the accountant about the requirement.
The PSD approved Hildreth's recommendation to reduce the water line size from 10-inch to 8-inch between Crummies Creek and Orma, where he said only about half the potential customers had signed up for the extension. Hildreth said that would provide adequate flow for fire fighting and prevent chlorine buildup while reducing project costs.
In a financial report, PSD members learned they were still $80,000 in the red.
"We're keeping our head above water," Collins said.
She said a $65,000 grant for sewer plant repairs had been submitted to the governor's office.
Ballengee reported the PSD had about $60,000 in past due water and sewer bills, about half of which are from inactive accounts.
She said she would get policies for dealing with rental unit customers so the PSD could adopt a policy of its own.
Ballengee said she was preparing to send cutoff notices to 37 customers this week.
The PSD reached an agreement with a representative of J.F. Allen, which had been billed for $754.81 for water lost when the company cut a water line during a paving project.
The company agreed to pay $500 to settle the dispute.