'I'd rather ride a horse'
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.
Transmission fluid and oil leak from the engine. Antifreeze gushes out. The tailpipe billows exhaust. The car sounds like "a big old semi truck."
The Corsica has failed to start in his driveway in Glen Jean. It has stalled at red lights in Oak Hill. It has broken down on the way to his latest job, at Wal-Mart.
Olds says he often has to ask for rides. "It seems like every Sunday, the car's breaking down," he said.
The Corsica wasn't Olds' first bad experience with a Wheels-to-Work car.
In 2000, he leased a Ford Taurus from CASE.
The car broke down several times, Olds said. The car's rear door wouldn't open. His son had to crawl into the back seat.
CASE provided a loaner car, but Olds had to surrender it for the Corsica.
Olds says he paid more than $2,000 on the lease. He recently received a $750 "bill of sale" for the vehicle after he was given its title.
State officials decided last summer to scrap the Wheels program and give the cars away to participants such as Olds who hadn't finished paying off leases.
"They got rich, I'm telling you, and they gave everybody a clunker," Olds said of the nonprofit agencies that ran Wheels programs with federal money administered by the state Department of Health and Human Resources.
Olds said he took the Corsica to a repair shop, but it sat on the lot for days. Olds said he paid for repairs out of his own pocket. He had the engine mount, brakes and spark plugs replaced.
He dumps a gallon of antifreeze into the car each day so it won't overheat on his way to work.
Olds said he had to give up a higher-paying job with the telephone repair company because he didn't trust the Corsica to make it to Beckley and back every day. He took the job at Wal-Mart because it's much closer to home.
"All they told me was 'Here's your car. Good luck,'" Olds said. "After all the money they took me for, I wish I never got it.
"It's kind of crazy. There's a lot of people out there who don't know what's going on."
To contact staff writer Eric Eyre and Scott Finn, use e-mail or call 348-4869 or 357-4323.