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WV Legislative Interims: Division of Forestry restricted from enacting or modifying rules, regulations of state’s Managed Timberland Program

By Matt Young, WV Press Association

CHARLESTON, W.Va. – The West Virginia Legislature’s Post Audits Subcommittee learned Sunday that the Division of Forestry is restricted from enacting or modifying any rules or regulations which govern the state’s Managed Timberland Program. 

The subcommittee met on Sunday during the first day of January’s Interim Legislative Sessions. This was the subcommittee’s final scheduled meeting prior to the start of the 2023 Regular Legislative Session. The meeting began with a report concerning the Managed Timberland Program, delivered to the subcommittee by Post Audit Manager Mike Jones of the Legislative Post Audit Division. 

Jones began with a brief overview of the Managed Timberland Program. Established in 1990, the purpose of the program is to offer a property tax reduction to landowners who adhere to “sustainable timber practices.” According to Jones, the Division of Forestry and the State Tax Department are the two governmental entities impacted by the program.

“Our review of the Managed Timberland Program revealed several operational weaknesses in the operation of the program, and areas which could be improved to produce better outcomes,” Jones told subcommittee members. “The first area to discuss concerns the legislative rule.”

Jones explained that, under the current statute, the State Tax Department has full operational-authority over the program, despite the Division of Forestry being equally impacted by it. 

“According to a legal opinion from Legislative Services, the Tax Department cannot promulgate rules that encompass the classification of timberland – only the valuation,” Jones noted. “And any rule enacted by the tax department regarding the certification of managed timberland would cause a conflict in authority.”

Jones then added that, as a result of the oversight-dynamic, the Division of Forestry is restricted from enacting or modifying any rules or regulations which govern the program. 

“As a result of forestry’s inability to modify the rules for the certification of properties as managed timber, the process has become outdated and inefficient,” Jones said. 

Jones then moved on to deliver a report regarding the Fleet Management Division Telematics Pilot Program, telling the subcommittee that “many shortcomings” were discovered within the statewide vehicle fleet. 

“In general,” Jones began, “there were continual issues in obtaining accurate and complete information concerning vehicle use.”

According to Jones, legislative action requiring the use of record-keeping logs for all state-owned vehicles has been largely ignored. Records kept have been inconsistent and inaccurate, and therefore unusable. 

“The most overarching cause for the issues identified in our audits is the lack of statutory authority for the Fleet Management Division to provide oversight of the state vehicle fleet,” Jones said, before explaining that each individual department is currently responsible for their assigned vehicles. 

“Allowing each [individual department] autonomy creates a situation where there cannot be a consistent, applied method for providing oversight, creating potential inequities,” Jones added.

The legislative auditor (Aaron Allred) believes, according to Jones, that “expanding fleet management statutory authority for oversight of the state vehicle fleet could lead to an overall reduction in the size and annual expense of the state fleet.” Jones further noted that the approach recommended by the legislative auditor has seen substantial success in Pennsylvania. 

Jones then provided a brief report on the Telematics Pilot Program, explaining that a telematics-equipped vehicle is capable of self-monitoring mileage, speed, location, and driving habits in near real time. Jones further explained that 44 state employees have been assigned a telematics-equipped vehicle for the pilot-period.

“These vehicles were assigned to individuals who must quickly travel to various locations, and appear to have a valid business use for their vehicle,” Jones said. “The legislative auditor identified three drivers assigned a state vehicle who may not require continual daily use.” 

Next to appear before the subcommittee was Nathan Hamilton, Volunteer Fire Department (VFD) auditor with the Legislative Post Audit Division, to deliver the 2022 annual VFD audit report. 

“VFDs receive funding via a surcharge and a premium tax on fire and casualty insurance,” Hamilton began. “These are the two primary sources of funding which comprise the Fire Protection Fund.”

Hamilton advised the subcommittee that state funding is equally distributed to qualified departments on a quarterly basis. However, department use of the funds is restricted to only state-authorized expenditures. State funds must also be kept in an account separate from all other department funds. According to Hamilton, the three most common infractions discovered during audits are unauthorized expenditures, unsupported expenditures, and commingled funds. 

In 2022, Hamilton noted, only 36 of the 86 departments audited were found to be in compliance.

“Fifty VFDs were not in compliance with W.Va. code,” Hamilton said. “(They) had differing combinations of commingled funds, unallowable expenditures and unsupported expenditures, totaling approximately $288,000.”

Hamilton added that accident and sickness insurance, dress uniforms, cable television, food and beverages and gift cards were all examples of unallowable expenditures identified during the 2022 audit. 

In the day’s final piece of business, Pierpont CTC Interim President Kathleen Nelson and Fairmont State University Interim Provost and Vice-president of Academic Affairs Dr. Timothy Oxley appeared before the subcommittee to provide an update regarding the separation and fee for service agreement between their respective schools. 

“I would tell you that the relationship between our two institutions over the last six months has been exceptional,” Nelson said. “I will say that thanks to the work of Dr. Oxley, and our (Pierpont CTC) provost, Dr. Michael Waide, we signed the first academic articulation agreement between the two institutions in more than five years.”

“I would tell you that we’re working extremely well together,” Nelson concluded.

Oxley expressed his agreement with Nelson, saying, “The working relationship right now between Pierpont and Fairmont State is at a better place than it’s been in quite some time.”

The 2023 Regular Legislative Session is schedule to begin on Wednesday, Jan. 11