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Lawsuit halts grant payouts

August 22, 2003|by CANDICE BOSELY

martinsburg@herald-mail.com

Planes continue to take off and land daily at Eastern Regional Airport outside of Martinsburg, but it could be even longer before weary travelers can drop their bags and grab a cup of coffee at a new terminal.

Plans for building the terminal rely on funding from the state's Economic Development Grant Committee. Although committee members awarded the project $1.2 million, a pending lawsuit has halted distribution of the grant, along with 49 others around the state.

"We can't start the project until the money is free and clear," said Rick Wachtel, chairman of the Eastern Regional Airport Authority.

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The Federal Aviation Administration has promised to hold $600,000 in matching funds until it can "reasonably assume" the state grant money will come through, Wachtel said.

News of the pending lawsuit disappointed Wachtel, he said. Bid documents had been prepared and Wachtel said he had hoped construction would start soon.

Depending on weather, construction of the $3 million terminal is expected to take a year to 15 months. The basement and a parking ramp already have been built.

Two other local projects that received grants were the Jefferson County Board of Education, $6 million; and the Roundhouse Authority, $2.75 million.

Board of Education officials plan to use their funding to help build a second high school.

Because the school is expected to cost $30 million to $32 million to build, the grant is not the sole source of funding. Voters will be asked to approve a bond call next May and school officials plan to seek funds from the School Building Authority.

Impact fees are another possible source of funding, said Lori Stilley, president of the school board.

Roundhouse Authority officials plan to use their allocation to build a pedestrian bridge connecting the Caperton Train Station to the Roundhouse.

"We didn't expect that we were going to get the money anytime soon," said Bill Hayes, executive director of the Roundhouse Authority. "It's just one more hurdle."

Whether the funding comes through or not, Hayes said the Roundhouse will be restored. Grant money simply would have expedited the project.

"We'll get there," he said.

The Economic Development Authority voted 8-1 to heed advice of several attorneys who said bonds for the projects could not be sold as long as the legal case is pending.

Under a law passed in July that re-created the Economic Development Grant Committee, the bonds are to be repaid by $19 million a year in video lottery revenue.

On Aug. 1, Jackson County attorney Larry Harless notified the state Lottery Commission that he intended to file a lawsuit on behalf of two antigambling groups questioning whether video lottery funds can be used constitutionally for any state purpose, including bond repayment.

Also in question is whether the July law successfully addressed a state Supreme Court ruling in response to an earlier Harless lawsuit. Filed on behalf of the West Virginia Citizen Action Group, that case successfully challenged the original committee's selection process and undid the first grant awards last year.

Harless said Thursday that the antigambling case likely will be filed in Kanawha County Circuit Court after Labor Day.

Only by putting the case on a very fast track could the issue be resolved by the state Supreme Court before year's end, attorneys said.

Among the projects the committee certified Wednesday were $35 million for a Cabela's outlet near Wheeling, $14.75 million for a high technology business park near Fairmont, $12 million for a Charleston baseball park, $13.9 million for a Morgantown theater and marina and $10.6 million for the Pullman Square project in Huntington.

Charleston Mayor Danny Jones, who backs the new ballpark, is considering bringing his own lawsuit to try to get the legal questions answered so the bonds can be issued faster, said Rod Blackstone, a mayoral assistant.

Harless tried to file his antigambling lawsuit earlier this year, but it was thrown out of court because he had not told the Lottery Commission 30 days in advance that he was bringing the case. All state agencies must be so notified of pending litigation.

The Associated Press contributed to this story.

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