Charleston Gazette-Mail. August 2, 2023.
Editorial: WV higher education in crisis
Alarm bells should be ringing for anyone — in state or out — considering attending or teaching at a college or university in West Virginia.
Granted, those warning sirens have been sounding for some time. Things got a lot worse very quickly on Monday, though. In a juxtaposition of very different schools with somewhat similar problems, the West Virginia Higher Education Policy Commission ruled that Alderson Broaddus University can no longer award degrees after Dec. 31, while West Virginia University extended President E. Gordon Gee’s contract through 2025.
Alderson Broaddus cannot accept new students, and existing students who aren’t seniors scheduled to graduate in December won’t be able to attend classes for the fall semester, which was scheduled to begin in three weeks. The move signals a likely shuttering of the small, private university in Barbour County, which has been in operation since 1932.
Financial struggles at the university were well-known. The HEPC had threatened to take action after learning the school was struggling just to keep the lights on at its facilities, racking up a debt of nearly $800,000 in utility bills. University officials said a lump payment of $67,000 was made last week, along with an agreement to make regular monthly payments, to ensure utilities weren’t shut off. The university also was fundraising just to make payroll for faculty and staff. That kind of desperation doesn’t inspire confidence.
According to tax filings made available by ProPublica, the university was $1 million in the red at the end of the 2020 fiscal year and had $37.4 million in liabilities, compared to only about $22 million in assets.
Pulling the plug right before the start of the semester will be devastating for the school’s roughly 830 students, about 750 of whom are undergrads. Many are now scrambling to figure out where to go and what to do in regard to the upcoming academic year. This includes athletes on scholarships and foreign students who recently arrived in the United States for the start of the semester.
The HEPC originally had approved Alderson Broaddus to start the fall semester — under tight oversight — although the situation quickly changed as more financial problems came to light.
The news also is devastating for the hundreds of employees at the school, and the surrounding community. Alderson Broaddus, despite its troubles, was an important economic driver for rural Phillipi, which has a population of less than 3,000, according to 2020 census data.
The university’s financial woes, according to a university statement issued in May, stem from a steep decline in enrollment, which reached a crisis point in 2011, when the university had less than 500 students. Alderson Broaddus turned to athletic scholarships as a solution, and enrollment quickly surpassed 1,000. However, as enrollment soared, student retention dropped. Only about 24% of Alderson Broaddus students end up graduating, according to an analysis of the school from U.S. News & World Report.
On an entirely different scale, dropping enrollment also is being blamed for a projected $45 million shortfall at West Virginia University. WVU has already committed to cutting 12 post-graduate programs, and it is evaluating a host of other programs and faculty to cut while raising tuition.
Amid all this trimming and placing further economic burden on students, the WVU Board of Governors made the baffling decision Monday to extend Gee’s $800,000-a-year contract through 2025 (at roughly the same time the HEPC, which, ironically, has almost no control over the state’s largest public university, was giving Alderson Broaddus the ax).
Members of the board said they need and trust Gee, 79, to navigate the state’s flagship university during this difficult time. But Gee’s been at the helm at WVU since 2013. So, one has to ask, isn’t he somewhat responsible for getting the university into this mess?
Yes, the state has been slashing funding for higher education continually. It’s true that many colleges and universities across the country have had to reevaluate what they offer students compared to the cost, especially as crippling student loan debt has become a national problem. But WVU is trying to steer an ocean liner on a dime here, and keeping Gee on at such a high salary sends a confusing message when the university is considering such wide-ranging cuts.
The situation at Alderson Broaddus is sad and disappointing, even if it might have been, as some have suggested, inevitable. It remains to be seen what will happen at WVU.
The unfortunate bottom line: Buyer beware, when it comes to higher education in the Mountain State.
The Intelligencer. July 29, 2023.
Editorial: W.Va. Tax, Mineral Appraisals Flawed
Five months ago, West Virginia Department of Tax and Revenue officials told residents throughout the state who had leased their oil and natural gas rights for production to trust them. State employees were working to correct inaccurate mineral rights appraisals that are used to determine property taxes — values that some residents saw increase by three- to four-fold from the prior year. The values would be fixed by the time tax bills were sent, state officials assured.
From discussions with local residents, state lawmakers and county assessors, it appears that didn’t fully happen. When some local residents we’ve heard from received their property tax bill in the mail late last week, the inaccurate values the state initially set remained unchanged. Others say theirs was fixed. This has led the process to now being scrutinized by the West Virginia Legislative Auditor’s Office, where early indications are that some of the appraisals are right, and some are wrong.
The West Virginia Legislature, through the 2021 passage of House Bill 2581, tasked the State Tax Department with creating a new methodology for valuing mineral rights. This was necessary after the West Virginia Supreme Court ruled the prior valuation method unconstitutional.
The Tax Department’s work was completed last year, and earlier this year mineral rights owners began receiving notices of increase in their values. When the State Tax Department finally shared just how it was determining the values, it became clear that most of the valuations were wrong.
When contacted about the matter, State Tax Department officials said they were aware and would fix it before tax bills went out. It does appear as if some appraisals were fixed, but others were not. And even though tax bills have been sent and payments are due in the coming months, there are still several hundred outstanding mineral rights appeals sitting before the West Virginia Office of Tax Appeals.
So what does this mean? For one, some people will be paying more in taxes this year than they should. That leaves you with less of your money to spend as you choose. This is nothing short of back-door tax increase to residents with mineral holdings. West Virginians don’t appreciate that approach.
Also, the increased tax collections could mean local school systems and county governments will see their budgets increase based on faulty numbers. They will spend that money — that’s what government does — and at some point in the future when this is fixed and you are paying less, these agencies will have a budget they can’t afford, and elected leaders will be faced with the decision to cut the budget or increase the levy rate. It’s a cycle of fiscal negligence that should have been fixed. And if state officials were unable or unwilling to figure out how, they should have reverted the values back to last year’s numbers to protect, not punish, mineral rights owners. State officials need to explain just how this happened.
Gov. Jim Justice, who has refused to engage on this issue since we first reported on it in February, must own this mistake. His Tax Department made assurances that were not kept. As he seeks a higher office with the U.S. Senate, he must not forget over these next 17 months that he works for West Virginians and can’t ignore matters such as this.
Parkersburg News and Sentinel. August 1, 2023.
Editorial: Manchin: Permitting reform is vital to economy
How often has an important project seemed ready to roll — members of both political parties on board, even — when any good they might do is brought to a screeching halt by a problem with federal red tape? Certainly here in West Virginia we know that story. That may be why it was U.S. Sen. Joe Manchin, D-W.Va., who chaired a hearing last week of the Senate Energy and Natural Resources Committee to discuss what comes next for permitting reform.
“Today we continue the important work of considering reforms to our energy permitting system and the state of energy on our public lands and waters,” Manchin said. “Permitting reform is essential for more reliable and affordable energy and to make our country more secure and competitive.”
We won’t diversify our energy portfolio and become more energy independent if we continue to hold ourselves back.
Manchin has been at this for a while, though, having been forced to pull permitting reform language from a bill last summer, only to have some of it included in the Fiscal Responsibility Act of 2023.
“Congress took a meaningful step forward in June with the Fiscal Responsibility Act … with several common sense reforms that I know had bipartisan support from our committee members,” Manchin said. “That included firm deadlines to complete reviews, requirements that agencies work simultaneously on a single environmental review, and several others. But there is still much more to do.”
What comes next?
Work remains to be done on electrical transmission and the national grid. There are pipelines to build. Land (or water) will be needed for other energy projects.
“One critical element which wasn’t included in the debt deal that would benefit all types of energy projects, from pipelines to offshore wind to mining projects, are judicial reforms,” Manchin said. “While the debt deal shrunk NEPA (National Environmental Policy Act) review timelines down to no more than two years, as we all know, litigation on the back end can add many more years to the permitting process after agencies complete their work.”
Again, we know that pain all too well here in the Mountain State, but progress is being hampered all over the country. Manchin and other committee members must be tireless in pushing for reform that ensures when we are ready to move forward, King Bureaucracy gets out of our way.