By C.V. Moore
On Friday, members of the Fayette County Planning Commission and Board of Zoning Appeals peppered a regional planning and development council member with questions about the Fayette/Raleigh Metropolitan Planning Organization (MPO), a new unit of government currently being organized to facilitate local input on transportation projects.
W.D. Smith, executive director of the Region 4 Planning and Development Council, made a presentation to the Fayette County Commission on the MPO, saying the organization will give locals “a seat at the table” when it comes to transportation planning and decision-making.
MPOs are federally mandated transportation planning councils that are required as a condition of receiving federal highway and transit funding in urbanized areas. The creation of the Fayette/Raleigh MPO was triggered by 2010 census results that showed that the Beckley/Fayette urbanized area has exceeded 50,000 people.
Meeting attendees requested that Fayette County’s planning and zoning officials be included on the organization’s policy board or advisory committee.
“Most of the applications we receive will have a transportation factor. The egress and ingress to the highway will be a factor that is considered,” said Guy Dooley, a member of the Fayette County Planning Commission.
They also wanted to know exactly to what extent their input will be brought to bear on transportation issues because of the MPO.
Smith said that when local transportation needs are brought to the MPO, they can be incorporated into the group’s short- or long-range plan.
The MPO, as well as the state, can originate projects through special studies and a planning process, including those related to rail, air, pedestrian, bicycle, waterways or roads.
Transportation projects using federal money also have to be accepted and ratified by the MPO before the state Division of Highways can draw down the funds.
Smith said that up to this point, local government officials and members of the public had to write a letter to the state or approach their elected representatives with transportation issues and “see what happens.” Now, there will be a formal process for providing such input — namely, through planning.
“This is not about funding projects or building projects, but it’s about planning for the future in the short and long term,” said Smith.
“Ultimately, this MPO will need to either give the thumbs up or thumbs down on these projects. They can’t go forward, pretty much, without the MPO’s agreement, which gives you a pretty significant voice.”
Turning down federal dollars for transportation rarely, if ever, happens, he said. Usually issues are negotiated so the MPO and the state are on the same page.
Fayette County Commission President Matthew Wender told Smith that the body ought to “test its mettle” by asking the state to put a stop light at the Glen Jean intersection on U.S. 19, widely regarded by locals as a dangerous spot.
The Fayette/Raleigh MPO, with a population of 64,022, includes communities as far south as Sophia and Shady Spring and as far north as Fayetteville. Smith anticipates that before its official launch, the MPO will be expanded to include the entirety of Fayette and Raleigh counties.
The MPO is being organized jointly by the Region 4 and Region 1 Planning and Development Councils. A policy committee and a technical advisory committee are being formed, with Beckley Mayor Emmett Pugh chairing the former.
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Wender told meeting attendees he wants to hear what the county health department is doing about major health issues like diabetes, obesity, teen pregnancy, and drug and alcohol abuse.
He wants to know specific programs they execute in those areas, what their funding structure looks like, and what they do in the way of board development.
“Do you do what’s required to get by, or are you aggressively setting the standard and leading the way for health care?” he asked the department’s director, Roseann Michaels.
He said he was “disappointed” by the health department’s response to the June 29 wind storm and feels they should have been first in line on the scene.
Wender wants to have a discussion about whether the department should pursue partnerships with other counties, as is done in some other parts of the state that are considered leaders in the field of public health.
Fayette County’s department has eight staff members and focuses on nursing, threat preparedness, and environmental health. They handle restaurant inspections and administer health screenings, among other programs.
Commissioner John Lopez complained to Michaels of unsafe, unsanitary housing and living conditions in the area near Smithers, and wondered why the health department hadn’t done anything to address those matters.
Michaels said her inspectors follow up on all citizen complaints but that they are limited in their authority to affect change.
“Our sanitarians are frustrated too,” she says.
Michaels is scheduled to appear again before the commission in February to continue the conversation.
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The Fayette County Weatherization Program continues to see a low number of project completions, and the program budget has been cut by 60 percent to 65 percent, said Earl Smith, director of Mountain Heart, which contracts with the county to carry out the program.
The Weatherization Assistance Program’s goal is to reduce energy costs for low-income families by improving the energy efficiency of their homes while ensuring their health and safety. Workers install insulation and seal air leaks in homes that qualify for the program.
Appearing before the commission in April, before the budget cuts, Smith told the commission the program lacked 24 weatherization completions due in June and faced a projected budget shortfall of nearly $40,000.
He told commissioners Friday that Mountain Heart did indeed finish the required number of projects, but that they had to do so by “cherry-picking” the quick, easy ones. He said that besides the elderly and people with disabilities, there are no guidelines for prioritizing projects.
“It’s purely a numbers game,” he said.
The program’s current total budget for Wyoming and Fayette counties is $392,610 for a total of 56 required projects.
Mountain Heart has averaged about three completions per month since July, meaning the program is likely to fall behind again this year.
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