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Courthouse fire spurs an insurance review

September 04, 2006|by MATTHEW UMSTEAD

MARTINSBURG, W.VA. - State Sen. Walt Helmick is asking county leaders across West Virginia to review their insurance coverage for courthouses in the wake of the fire that practically destroyed Morgan County's courthouse in Berkeley Springs in early August.

The circa-1908 building in Berkeley Springs, W.Va., was insured through the State Board of Risk and Insurance Management for $2 million, but there are at least five other county courthouse buildings in West Virginia with less coverage, according to figures that BRIM Executive Director Charles E. Jones Jr. compiled recently for Helmick, D-Pocahontas.

Only 24 of the state's 55 counties have courthouse insurance through BRIM, a five-member board that supervises coverage for state property, county boards of education and other entities.

"Is this a wake-up call? I think it is," Helmick said in a telephone interview Friday.

As of Aug. 15, BRIM coverage limits ranged from $487,000 for the Summers County Courthouse in Hinton, W.Va., to about $13.4 million for Logan County's building, records show. Berkeley County's structure in downtown Martinsburg is insured for $2,354,000. Jefferson County has a $2.6 million coverage limit for its historic building. The courthouses in Hampshire and Hardy counties are insured for $5 million, according to BRIM records.

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"Following the disastrous fire that destroyed the Morgan County Courthouse on Aug. 8, 2006, I realized it was time to look at the other courthouses in the state to determine if there is sufficient coverage in the event of an emergency," Helmick said in a memo he had mailed Thursday to each county with a BRIM policy, except for Morgan. "I would appreciate your review of the coverage limits for your county and determine if you feel the amount is adequate for your needs."

On Friday, Helmick praised Morgan County's commissioners for their hard work to restore government operations amid an "unfortunate" situation.

"They're the ones that had to illuminate it for all the rest," Helmick said of the insurance coverage.

BRIM already has advanced Morgan County leaders $1 million to expedite their recovery effort, and Jones said the Board's adjusters are attempting to resolve the situation as soon as possible.

"Obviously, this is a tremendous loss," Jones added.

Like other BRIM policies for county courthouses, the contents of Morgan County's building were separately insured and County Administrator William R. Clark said he was scheduled to meet with an adjuster about the content losses last week.

Each of four annex buildings attached to the courthouse were damaged to some degree by the fire, but they also had individual insurance coverage limits that combined to about $1.8 million, Clark said.

Though more than 300 miles from Berkeley Springs, Logan County Commission President Arthur E. "Art" Kirkendoll said last week that the Morgan County Courthouse fire prompted him to propose increasing the coverage limits on building coverage to $20 million.

"It would increase our premium by about $9,000," Kirkendoll said of the pending increase. "But we think it's smart in the long run in case something would happen."

The loss of Jefferson County's courthouse would be a "devastating blow," County Commissioner Rusty Morgan said Friday.

"I don't think anybody has questioned the (coverage) limits - at least since I've been here," Morgan said.

He estimated the cost of replacing the historically noted building to be at least $10 million. The courthouse hosted the treason trials of famed slavery abolitionist John Brown in 1859 and West Virginia coal mine war leader Bill Blizzard in 1922.

The county has a $352,803 coverage limit for the building's contents, an amount Morgan said was "absurd" before questioning aloud how a value could be placed on some of the oldest records and documents.

Though several Berkeley County government departments, including the court system, are in the process of relocating to the former Blue Ridge Outlets complex, Commissioner Steven C. Teufel said Friday that the historic courthouse at King and Queen streets will be maintained. Teufel said county leaders have relied on the advice of a local insurance agency for determining coverage.

"We want to make sure that everything is up to code," said Teufel, who indicated he would like to obtain a few expert opinions before adjusting the building's coverage limits. The contents of Berkeley County's courthouse are insured up to $500,000. The limits for the new judicial center set to open in October are pending, County Administrator Deborah Hammond said Friday. Jefferson County's judicial center is insured for $4 million, according to Leslie Smith, Hammond's counterpart.

Jones said BRIM does not get involved in helping to determine what level of coverage counties should have on their buildings and indicated the state's insurance program is not profit-driven.

"It's up to the individual entity to make the decision as to whether (their policy) is adequate," Jones said.

Helmick understands that, but the State Senate Finance Committee chairman said he wants to be sure every county has adequate insurance to cover the additional expense of prevailing wages that must be paid to workers if a courthouse has to be replaced. Helmick also emphasized the limits of state government to help a particular county in an emergency situation.

"You set a precedent if you help one," Helmick said.

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