GLEN JEAN — David Olds suspected trouble with the 1993 Chevy Corsica moments after he picked up the keys.
A thick sheet of ice covered the floorboard beneath his feet. Water had leaked through the hood and dashboard.
"She was plumb full of ice," Olds recalled. "Right then, I knew ... whoever inspected the car apparently couldn't see."
Nonetheless, Olds, a former welfare recipient, kept making the $90 monthly lease payments through the state's Wheels-to-Work program.
He needed a car to get to his new job with a telephone line repair contractor. But the car broke down again and again, too many times to count, Olds said.
"I'd rather ride a horse to work," he said. "It's pathetic. I thought I'd have to go back on welfare."
Olds is among at least 48 low-income West Virginians who have complained about the Wheels-to-Work program to the Gazette, state officials or Department of Health and Human Resources caseworkers.
They say Wheels cars repeatedly broke down, engines caught fire, seat belts didn't work and various parts fell off, such as steering wheels and mufflers.
The state spent nearly $24 million in federal money to buy cars for welfare recipients, provide liability insurance and pay for major repairs since 2000.
Olds leased his Corsica from Bluefield-based Community Action of South Eastern West Virginia, one of four nonprofit agencies across the state that ran Wheels programs.
The other programs were managed by Human Resources Development Council of Morgantown, Community Resources Inc. of Parkersburg, and Potomac Highlands Support Services of Petersburg.
CASE officials say they provided safe, reliable vehicles to low-income people throughout southern and central West Virginia. They say "success stories" far outnumber complaints. And they released a stack of exit interviews with participants to support their assertion last week.
"The Wheels-to-Work program was of great value for the people it was intended to help," said Sandra Graham, who directs CASE's Wheels program.
But a November 2002 state review found "the quality of [CASE] vehicles was extremely poor, and the necessity for repair was unreasonable. DHHR staff related stories of poor experiences with CASE vehicles."
One welfare recipient reported she leased seven cars from CASE before she got one she could drive. One of those cars caught fire in her driveway, three days after she picked it up from CASE.
Olds, 31, still has the Corsica, but its days are numbered.