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Senate to vote on meth bill

CHARLESTON, W.Va. -- Legislation that would stop the West Virginia Crime Victims Compensation Fund from being used to clean up methamphetamine labs will be up for passage today in the Senate.

Meth lab cleanup claims have drained the crime victims fund amid a sharp increase in the clandestine labs statewide.

"This fund was not intended to clean up properties and compensate for property damage," said Sen. John Unger, D-Berkeley. "This fund was intended to help people."

On a narrow voice vote Tuesday, senators approved an amendment to a bill (SB204) that removes a section of state law that allows the crime victims fund to reimburse property owners for meth lab cleanup costs.

Sen. Mitch Carmichael, R-Jackson, said landlords -- not the state -- should be held responsible for fixing up their properties.

"If somebody walks into your rental unit with a ball bat or hammer and tears apart the place, we don't compensate for that," Carmichael said. "It's the responsibility of the landlord."

West Virginia is the only state that pays property owners for meth lab expenses. Other states require property owners or convicted meth lab operators to pick up cleaning costs.

During the past two years, the crime victims fund has paid out $1.2 million to clean up West Virginia's meth mess.

Last year, the fund distributed $849,146 for meth lab claims, up from $378,404.

Out-of-state landlords who own meth-contaminated properties in West Virginia received $100,000 of those payouts for cleanup costs since January 2012. Payments went to property owners in Kansas City, Mo; Surfside Beach, S.C.; Arlington, Va.; and Cincinnati.

In 1981, the Legislature set up the crime victims fund to help victims of violent crime. The fund typically pays for crime victims' medical and funeral expenses.

Six years ago, as meth labs began to proliferate in West Virginia, the Legislature passed a law that allows property owners to file claims with the state to help pay for meth cleanup.

Initially, the fund paid $5,000 for cleanup costs. State lawmakers raised the reimbursement amount to $10,000 two years ago.

Since 2012, the crime victims fund has paid more than $668,000 directly to companies that specialize in meth cleanup, while the remaining funds went to property owners.

On the Senate floor Tuesday, Sens. Brooks McCabe, D-Kanawha, and Clark Barnes, R-Randolph, urged their colleagues to continue state payouts for meth lab cleaning costs. They said landlords who unknowingly rent to people who use or cook meth shouldn't be stuck with the cleaning bill.

"We do truly have victims of crime," Barnes said.

McCabe said the crime victims fund helps fix up properties and keeps affordable housing on the market.

"This [meth lab cleanup] is not something covered by insurance," McCabe said. "In many cases, it makes the unit uninhabitable unless it's remediated."

To pay for the surge in meth lab claims, the state Court of Claims has tapped a reserve fund the past several years. The reserve account was set up to pay out injury claims after a catastrophic event, such as a school shooting or terrorist attack.

The reserve fund has dropped from $6 million to $2 million during the past four years.

Last week, the Senate Judiciary Committee voted unanimously to no longer allow the victims fund to be used to clean up meth, but the Senate Finance Committee reinserted the provision at a Monday meeting.

The amendment approved Tuesday stops the crime victims fund from reimbursing property owners for meth lab cleanup costs.

West Virginia law enforcement officers seized 533 meth labs last year, nearly double the 288 labs found in 2012.

Earlier this month, the Senate approved legislation (SB6) that aims to reduce meth labs by requiring a prescription for some cold medications containing pseudoephedrine, a key meth-making ingredient. The House Judiciary Committee is expected to consider the bill next week.

Reach Eric Eyre at ericeyre@wvgazette.com or 304-348-4869.

 


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