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Cannon: No fee for fire, rescue volunteers
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Hampshire County’s newest commissioner is proposing that volunteer firefighters and rescue squad members be exempted from paying the $100 annual ambulance fee.

“This is much overdue and is a public thank you to our volunteers,” Commissioner Dave Cannon posted on his Facebook page last week.

Cannon said he plans to introduce the proposal at the next County Commission meeting, 9 a.m. on Tuesday, May 11. He would need the support of either Commission President Brian Eglinger or Commissioner Bob Hott to get the proposal passed.

He said he hadn’t talked to either of the other commissioners about the proposal yet.  

Cannon said he was responding to his constituents in floating the idea.

“A lot of people supported me and voted for me and it’s a topic they were adamant about,” said Cannon, who won a 5-way Republican primary for the commission seat last June and was unopposed in November’s general election.

Cannon called the initiative a point of principle.

“It’s a small gesture in the scheme of the whole situation, but it’s a step in the right direction,” he said. “We need to do more to incentivize volunteers.”

Both fire companies and rescue squads have fought declining numbers in recent years. Slanesville suspended rescue operations at the beginning of 2020 and Capon Bridge’s rescue squad followed suit last spring.

The difficulty of some rescue squads to respond to calls led the County Commission to impose a $100 ambulance fee in 2018. The fee is levied on all occupied residences, but payment has not been universal.

Commissioners adopted the fee after voters narrowly rejected an ambulance levy that would have been imposed on all property owners in 2016. The levy drew the support of 57% of voters, falling short of the 60% required.

The ambulance fee raises more than $1 million annually toward a paid service that has units stationed on Jersey Mountain Road and in Capon Bridge.

Cannon said he didn’t know how much the exemption would cost.

“I didn’t even really want to make that part of the proposal,” he said. “I don’t want to take attention away from the point of it. The numbers were kind of irrelevant to me.”

The 8 fire companies and 4 rescue squads reported about 280 members last summer, but some members overlap.

Hampshire County has volunteer fire companies in Romney, Springfield Valley, Levels, Augusta, North River Valley and Capon Bridge. Capon Spring runs a combined fire and rescue squad. Romney, Springfield and Augusta have separate rescue squads.

Response to Cannon’s Facebook post was almost universally favorable.

Romney Fire Chief G.T. Parsons urged the county go farther.

“Come up with something that will show appreciation of the $1.5 million that the volunteers save the taxpayers,” he said.

Blake Shockey of Capon Bridge noted that volunteers suggested the exemption when the fee was adopted.

“Like other aspects of this process we were ignored,” he posted. “This is also a great way to incentivize others to volunteer in EMS and help out our community.”

Charlie Streisel of Augusta called it “a small reward for a big service to the community.”

‘You can’t fight numbers’
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Board decides to explore John J. Cornwell closure

Board vice president Ed Morgan began the discussion among his fellow board members, calling it an “emotionally charged” topic.

“It’s time,” he said simply. “It’s been for a long time, and no one is gonna say ‘I didn’t see this coming.’”

The school, built in 1963, has a current enrollment of only 54 students, and the number of students continues to dwindle.

The formalities for the official closure of a school must be wrapped up by Dec. 31, 2021 in order for closure to occur the following school year of 2022-23.

With the enrollment numbers declining rapidly, board member Bernie Hott said it was only a matter of time before the discussion of closure was revisited.

“It’s been thrown around a bit through the years, simply because of the numbers,” Hott said. “It’s coming, and I hate that it’s gonna happen, because when you take a school out of a community, you take the heart out of it.”

He added that while he feels sentimental about the Levels school, sentiment isn’t enough to keep the doors open.

“You can't fight numbers,” he said. “There comes a point in time where the numbers dictate what you have to do, and we’re there.”

With the passing of the school bond last year and the promise of 3 new elementary schools in the county’s near future, board member Dee Dee Rinker pointed out that the school would be closing anyway for consolidation when the new schools were built.

“The schools are all going to change,” she said.

Board member Matt Trimble made the point that just because a school is closed as an educational facility, it doesn’t mean the building itself won’t have its uses for the community.

Take the old Kirby School for example, he said.

“After its closure, I’m sure it was a loss for the community, but it’s become a great place for the fall festival, car fests, weddings, birthdays and countless things for the community,” Trimble said. “It has had its chance to blossom and be used by the community. At John J., no matter what goes there in the future, it has the same potential.”

Though the school has been an “integral” part of the Levels community for nearly 60 years, the numbers don’t lie. Keeping the doors open for such small numbers just isn’t that easy, financially, Hott explained.

“In reality, the more I think about it as a board member, there comes a point in time where you just have to close them,” Hott mused. “If there is a best time, it’s probably the best time.”

Trimble made the motion to explore the future formalities of closing the elementary school, and with a second from Rinker, the motion passed unanimously.

Morgan also stressed that while the board will be exploring the next-steps to closing the school, he and the rest of the board want to know what the community thinks.

“This isn’t a done deal,” he said. “Just because we’re discussing closure, we are encouraging opposition. Express your concerns. Cry, swear, whatever. Tell us how you feel.”

A life cut too short
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VAN BUREN, Ohio — The boy who wasn’t supposed to live 2 years made it to 7-and-a-half.

Landon James Rinker died peacefully in his mother’s arms last Thursday, nearly 4 years after his twin brother, Nolan Ross, lost his battle with lissencephaly, a brain disorder the boys were born with.

Their heroic struggle made heroes of their parents, Melody and Romney native Justin Rinker, who inspired folks around them and all across the nation with their efforts to bring a normal life to the family that also included the twins’ older brother Karson and their younger sister Isabella.

Melody shared the family’s story on her blog, Mama Laughs, in achingly candid posts through all the ups and downs.

“My biggest comfort today is knowing that this time, instead of death splitting them up, it brought them back together,” she wrote after Landon’s passing last Thursday night.

Death came at 9:52 p.m. Thursday, less than 2 hours after dad Justin made his way back home from a work assignment and Grandparents Steve and Dee Dee Rinker arrived from Romney.

The lissencephaly that Nolan and Landon were born with on Sept. 17, 2013, meant, essentially, that the surface of their brains was smooth instead of being crisscrossed by folds and grooves.

The genetic condition was caused by a defective migration of nerves during their embryonic development.

Doctors put their life expectancy at less than 2 years.

On their 1st birthday, Justin and Melody created a hero challenge for those who knew their story, asking friends, families and followers to do something good for someone.

“We saw this as an opportunity to give back with their help,” Melody said at the time. “Not that there aren’t a ton of needs for the boys, but those are never going to end.”

For their part of the challenge, the Rinkers made donations to their local police, fire and EMS services.

Nolan’s life ended on Sept. 5, 2017, just 12 days shy of his 4th birthday.

“His days on Earth were too few, but he was loved by so many,” his parents said in Nolan’s obituary.

Services for Landon will be at 4 p.m. Friday at Coldren Crates Funeral Home in Findlay, Ohio, with visitation for 2 hours beforehand.

After the service, those gathered will release blue balloons (weather permitting) in Landon’s memory, just as they launched green balloons for Nolan 4 years ago.

“For those who cannot attend, please feel free to join us from your home in releasing a blue balloon, placing a blue rock, or planting a blue flower,” Melody wrote, asking for photos to be sent to her as keepsakes.

The Rinkers plan to make donations in Landon’s memory to the Make-A-Wish Foundation and Awakening Minds Art.

Landon’s complete obituary can be found on Page 2A.

Pancione: Property swap must be staged
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ROMNEY — School superintendent Jeff Pancione updated the Hampshire County Development Authority on plans for their exchange of the old hospital property for Board of Education properties on School Street at last Wednesday’s meeting of the Hampshire County Development Authority.

Pancione said it was his understanding that everything could not be done at the same time. The hospital property will have to be given to the schools first, so the West Elementary School can be constructed there.

Once the new school is ready, Romney Elementary School children will move into it, vacating their old school, which can then be conveyed to the development authority.

The school annex and 2 temporary buildings must be occupied by the school administrative offices until the new Central Elementary School is built, Augusta Elementary School children moved into it, and the old Augusta school renovated to house the school system offices.

Once the administrative offices can be moved to Augusta, the annex and temporary buildings will be transferred to the Development Authority, probably sometime between June 2023 and late fall 2024.

No final decision has been made on what to do with the Romney Rescue Squad, currently housed on the old hospital property. Keeping them in their current location has been proposed, but reversing the doors on the ambulance garage, so that ambulances would exit from the back onto Blue Street.

This would route ambulances away from schoolchildren and West Elementary School traffic, but raises the same pedestrian safety issues as an earlier plan to use Blue Street as the primary route to access the West Elementary School.

When this plan was discussed at the March 2020 Development Authority meeting, Potomac Center CEO Rick Harshbarger said Potomac Center residents use Blue Street for bicycles, skateboards and therapy walks, and pointed out the Potomac Center “is on a dead-end street for a reason.”

Director Kevin Sanders of the Hampshire County Special Services Center also objected, saying his agency occupies buildings on both sides of Blue Street and people go back and forth all day.

Development Authority Executive Director Eileen Johnson agreed traffic patterns would be discussed, and Hampshire County Commissioner David Cannon reported that moving the rescue squad to a site in the Romney Business Park is also under discussion, though costs were a concern.

The Development Authority now has a plan for complying with the National Historic Preservation Act of 1966, preserving the memory of the historic old hospital building, which was constructed under the Hill-Burton Act passed during the Truman administration to provide hospitals to underserved America.

A public hearing on the plan, which included archiving the original architectural renderings and creating commemorative plaques, was to be held Monday.

In other business, the authority board received a sobering Covid-19 update from Health Department Director Stephanie Shoemaker, who said that while the state as a whole is doing well, the Eastern Panhandle is struggling, possibly due to its proximity to Virginia, where vaccination rates are lower.

Hampshire County’s infection rate had shot up from under 3% to 21.5% in the previous week, much of which Shoemaker attributed to Easter gatherings. Shoemaker urged continued caution, and noted that while the governor lifted other restrictions, mask mandates indoors have been left in place.

Over 22% of county residents, including almost 52% of the county’s senior citizens, have been vaccinated. Vaccines are being distributed through pharmacies and other offices to make it easier to get vaccinated.

Pausing the use of the Johnson and Johnson vaccine, due to its association with rare blood clots, has not helped with vaccine hesitancy. Shoemaker reported. This vaccine was just available here for a few weeks at Walgreens, and those on the waiting list were given the Moderna or Pfizer vaccine.

Asked about the Hampshire County Fair, Shoemaker responded: “Fairs and festivals are all a go,” noting there are still guidelines. The fair committee will meet tonight, and Len McMaster reported plans for Capon Bridge’s Founders Day are going forward also.

W.Va. will lose a seat in Congress
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CHARLESTON — West Virginia’s long population slide has cost the state another congressional seat.

The U.S. Census Bureau released state population totals Monday from the 2020 Census. West Virginia lost population over the decade while the nation as a whole grew 7.4%.

West Virginia’s resident population dipped to 1,793,716 in 2020, down nearly 3.2% from 1,852,994 in 2010, the largest decline in the nation. The national population topped 331.45 million.

The state populations released Monday are tied to how many seats in Congress each state gets. West Virginia joined New York, Pennsylvania, Ohio, Michigan, Illinois and California in losing Congressional seats. Oregon, Montana, Colorado, North Carolina and Florida each gained a seat and Texas gained 2.

Redistricting can’t begin until the next round of data is released, detailing population by city and county as well as demographics like race, ethnicity and age. That has a deadline of Sept. 30 and a projected release date of early August.

Those numbers will also be used to redraw West Virginia’s districts for the House of Delegates and State Senate.

West Virginia’s Congressional loss puts 3 Republican incumbents in 2 House districts after the next round of redistricting.

Roman Stauffer, a GOP consultant, expects the legislature’s redistricting process later this year to result in the two remaining congressional districts being divided between north and south. Reps. David McKinley and Alex Mooney would face off in a Republican primary in 2022, if both choose to run for reelection in the north.

Meanwhile, Rep. Carol Miller is likely to seek reelection representing the southern portion of the state, which has felt the brunt of the economic effects from deserted coalfields.

“West Virginians have seen too many neighbors, friends, and family members leave our state,” Miller said in a statement. “My mission to make West Virginia the best place to live, work, and raise a family will continue just the same after the census data is released.”

In a joint statement last week, the current House members said they all planned to run for re-election, but might reconsider after the new lines are drawn.

McKinley has not faced a primary opponent since first winning his congressional seat in 2010. He is from Wheeling, in the state’s northern panhandle, and is a former state legislator who ran for governor in 1996.

Mooney, a former Maryland state senator, was elected to his seat in 2014 and lives in Charles Town, a bright spot of growth that’s about an hour and a half drive from Washington, D.C.

The census data delivered the latest blow to a state where the coal industry’s demise has had a shattering effect on the economy. The state once had 6 House seats, but the delegation has been shrinking since 1960.

In 2010, Democrats controlled all but one of West Virginia’s five congressional offices, including both U.S. Senate seats. The state’s transformation into a GOP stronghold accelerated over the past decade, and registered Republicans now outnumber Democrats. Former President Donald Trump carried the state with 66% of the vote last year.

Sen. Joe Manchin is now the sole Democrat to hold statewide office. His term is up in 2024.

Head-on crash kills 52-year-old
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SPRINGFIELD — A Potomac Center employee died in a head-on collision before dawn last Thursday morning.

Brian Sgaggero, 52, was pronounced dead at the scene of the 2-vehicle crash on Route 28 near Springfield Assembly of God Church.

Authorities say Sgaggero was southbound in his pickup when a northbound 2016 Chevrolet driven by Brittany N. Sears, 20, of Fort Ashby crossed the centerline and collided with his truck.

The impact sent Sgaggero’s truck over an embankment, trapping him in it as it caught fire, the Hampshire County Sheriff’s Office said. 

Authorities say a passerby tried unsuccessfully to free Sgaggero, who was “profoundly” entrapped.

Sears was transported to UPMC Western Maryland in Cumberland for treatment of her injuries, which authorities said were not life-threatening. Initial reports from the scene said that a passenger refused treatment.

Sgaggero has worked at the Potomac Center in Romney for 12 years. His family is asking that memorial donations go to the Potomac Center, c/o Kim Helmstetter, 1 Blue St., Romney, WV 26757.

“We are heartsick,” Potomac Center CEO Rick Harshbarger said. “Brian was a kind, gentle funny and talented employee. He is and will always be greatly missed.”

Visitation for Sgaggero will be from 3 to 5 p.m. Thursday (April 29) at Scarpelli Funeral Home, 108 Virginia Ave., Cumberland. At his request, he will be cremated.

No charges have been filed and the case remains under investigation by Senior Deputy Jacob Crites.

Springfield, Romney and Fort Ashby fire companies responded to the 911 call shortly before 5 a.m. along with the Springfield Rescue Squad, Hampshire County EMS and Medical Examiner Chris Guynn.

The road didn’t reopen to full traffic for nearly 3 hours.