UNDER THE DOME
BY TOM MILLER
It would appear a dispute between this state's volunteer firefighters and the state legislature over the availability of workers' compensation insurance coverage for these firemen has been partially resolved by State Insurance Commissioner Jane Cline and the state Board of Risk and Insurance Management. But it's a temporary fix at best.
A couple of weeks ago some volunteer firemen were threatening to call a statewide strike to goad lawmakers into action to correct what was perceived as a loophole in current state law that would deny volunteer firemen insurance coverage after July 1, 2011.
The warning of a possible strike came from Tom Miller (no relation so far as I know) who is secretary of the Sissonville Volunteer Fire Department in Kanawha County and one of those working with legislators on bills that affect volunteer firemen. He claimed that 129 of the state's 426 volunteer fire departments will lose liability coverage on Sept. 1.
In response to those concerns, Insurance Commissioner Jane Cline sent a memo to the volunteer fire departments early last month in which she advised them that the VFDs didn't need broad form workers' compensation insurance coverage because the directors and officers of the units have immunity from personal liability under existing state laws.
Cline presented that same information to a July legislative interim committee.
But former legislator Sam Love, a lobbyist for the West Virginia Fireman's Association, warned that Cline's memo didn't satisfy most of his members. And he raised an obvious question that remains unanswered. He wanted to know why broad form liability coverage was being sold to the volunteer departments if it wasn't necessary.
That was followed up by an announcement last week from Secretary of Revenue Virgil Helton that the West Virginia Board of Risk and Insurance Management (BRIM) would step in Sept. 1 to provide insurance coverage to 281 volunteer fire departments. This will give the task force that has been assigned to work out this problem more time to come up with a permanent solution for the state's volunteer firefighters.
Gov. Joe Manchin confirmed last Tuesday in a press release that BRIM would provide this coverage for the VFDs until June 30, 2011 as a temporary solution while efforts to continue to resolve the overall issue of workers' compensation coverage for the firefighters.
The ultimate answer will be the responsibility of the 2011 Legislature and Manchin's successor as governor. This was the position outlined by Kanawha County Commission President Kent Carper. He believes the real issue is the Legislature's need to find a method of providing sufficient funding for these mostly rural volunteer fire departments that have the responsibility to protect so many West Virginia residents.
So we can expect this controversy to be an issue at the 2011 regular legislative session when it convenes in January.
Meahwnile, in a classic understatement, J. D. Stricklen of the West Virginia Association of Homebuilders described last week's announcement that the West Virginia Housing Development Fund would be offering first-time homebuyers a 3.5 percent interest rate on 30-year home mortgages as a "really big deal."
Gov. Manchin said this state's solid financial status was the reason such an attractive program can be initiated and that there is no state tax subsidy involved. A $35 million revenue bond issue will be used to finance the program and Director Joe Hatfield of the states Housing Development Fund expects all the available mortgage money to be gone by the end of the summer.
Since the private mortgage rates are now 4.5 percent, this will mean a savings of about $125 a month in mortgage payments by those individuals who qualify for the new program. These folks will also be entitled to zero percent interest on loans to cover the closing costs and down payment.
There are certain limits on the incomes of families to qualify as well as maximum amounts for the price of the new home but those numbers should not pose a problem for most West Virginians. Those who are interested can begin the process by calling 877-WVA-DREAM.
Finally, it's probably going to be the only minor setback in his all-but-certain march to the United States Senate for Gov. Joe Manchin. He came in last when Secretary of State Natalie Tennant conducted a random drawing for the order of candidates' names on the ballot for the special statewide primary election Saturday Aug. 28
Former Congressman and Secretary of State Ken Hechler drew the top spot among the three Democrat candidates seeking to be their party's nominee for the unexpired term in the U. S. Senate caused by the death of Robert C. Byrd. The favorite among the 10 Republican candidates, John Raese of Morgantown, will be fourth on the GOP primary ballot.
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