By Tina Alvey
Refusing to appeal a judge’s ruling that its use of bed tax funds to renovate a swimming pool was illegal, the Greenbrier County Commission has begun the process of canceling its lease for a controversial aquatic center.
In addition to instructing Prosecuting Attorney Patrick I. Via to serve a 30-day notice on New River Community and Technical College that the county’s lease on the pool is being unilaterally terminated, commissioners also voted to renew a demand that the college’s foundation refund $1.3 million in bed tax money to the county.
The funds were remitted to the foundation in December for use in renovating an indoor swimming pool on New River’s Greenbrier Valley campus in Lewisburg, but the allocation and the process by which the commission acted were almost immediately challenged in court.
Special Judge Charles M. Vickers ruled late last week that not only were two meetings during which commissioners voted on the allocation conducted in violation of the state’s Sunshine Law, but that the expenditure of hotel/motel tax revenue on a building not owned by either the county or a municipality was illegal as well.
Emerging from a 45-minute executive session Wednesday during which commissioners conferred with Via regarding the court’s ruling, Commissioner Woody Hanna glumly proclaimed, “I have felt that this litigation would turn out the way it has.”
“I think Mr. Hanna is on point,” Commissioner Mike McClung concurred. “The point of law was pretty clear, and the (judge’s) ruling was pretty blunt.”
He added, “We need to cut our losses.”
Hanna said he was opposed to appealing Vickers’ ruling, opining, “It would be a waste of additional funds.”
Both men voted against Commission President Karen Lobban’s motion to appeal the mandamus order issued by Vickers.
The remainder of the pool-related issues on the day’s agenda fell like dominoes on identical 2-1 votes, with Lobban representing the minority view at each juncture.
First, the commission decided to reject the college’s offer of a “condo deed” under which the county would take ownership of the aquatic center portion of the school’s Student Activities Center.
McClung pointed out that he has consistently voted against the pool project at every turn, adding, “I would not be in favor of the condo deed.”
Hanna objected to the college pool’s location and dimensions, saying it is both “isolated” and “undersized.”
The last vote on the pool issue killed two birds with one stone, as Hanna and McClung voted on a single motion to cancel the county’s contract with the college to operate the aquatic center and to renew a demand first made in May for the foundation to give back the money the county had previously allocated for the project.
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Contacted by telephone following the commission session, New River President Dr. L. Marshall Washington told The Register-Herald that the college’s board of governors will meet next week, and he expects the aquatic center to be a topic for discussion.
“We will be considering the litigation and its implications,” he said.
Asked about the refund request, Washington said, “Our board of governors will have to consider that request when they meet on Wednesday at 10 a.m.”
A previously reported meeting of the college’s Greenbrier Valley Board of Advisors, which was originally set for July 18, has been canceled.
The building in which the controversial pool is located has been undergoing extensive renovations, which Washington said in an earlier interview are now more than halfway complete. Many of the upgrades already made involve structural improvements necessitated by the pool’s anticipated operation, he said.
College officials have said privately the pool would not have been restored without the county’s pleas for a public swimming facility, because the space could have been renovated for less money if converted to classrooms or offices.
Lewisburg attorney Barry Bruce, who represented the people challenging the legality of the county’s funding of the pool, told the commissioners Wednesday the lease agreement requires full funding by the county before any work on the pool renovations could commence.
He presented documents showing the county’s share of the project’s costs was $1,450,000 and argued that, since the commission allocated only $1.3 million, New River should not have commenced the project.
“They (New River officials) had no right to begin construction on the swimming pool,” Bruce said. “The community college cannot come back on the commission for the money.”
“We have expended money on that project,” Washington confirmed Wednesday, but declined to specify whether the county’s $1.3 million contribution to the project had been spent in part or in whole.
“I can’t articulate any plans on the future of the pool until after our board of governors meets on Wednesday,” Washington said.
While the college’s president was not able to attend the commission meeting, board of governors President David Nalker, who lives in Lewisburg, was in the audience as the commissioners made their decisions.
Although he declined to speak on behalf of the college board following the meeting, Nalker said, “As a citizen, I’m very disappointed in the decision to cancel the lease and not accept the condo deed.”
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At the opposite end of the spectrum, local senior activist Betty Jo Sharp said, “I agree wholeheartedly with the judge. I especially applaud the commission for asking for the money to be returned.”
Along with Pete Adams, who was just last month elected Rainelle Town Recorder, Sharp was one of Bruce’s clients in the successful court challenge to the commission’s use of bed tax funds.
“This is why I feel our county commission meetings are so important,” Sharp said. “If we don’t discuss these things at our public meetings, the people’s will won’t be known.”
She added, “I have nothing against the pool. I never have had anything against the pool.”
Also in the audience of the well-attended commission meeting was former Commission President Betty Crookshanks, who took the lion’s share of the blame from the judge for the commission’s missteps concerning pool funding as her term wound down at the end of last year.
After the meeting, Crookshanks offered a critique of the timing of the commission’s decisions to discontinue the pool lease and demand a refund of the amount allocated in December.
“It would have been better if the county commission took action to void the lease in January,” she said, noting that the expensive renovations to the pool in the college-owned building would not have commenced, nor would the litigation have continued, if the commission had acted in a timely fashion.
Crookshanks also responded to the harsh words the judge directed toward her in his ruling.
“I’ve always followed the advice of the prosecutor — except once on a different issue,” Crookshanks said. “I had a letter from Mr. Via, dated in December, saying there was nothing wrong with what we were doing.”
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