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Statehouse beat: 9 conservation supervisors claim more than $10k

Like many of you, I suspect, when I came to the nonpartisan Conservation District Supervisors portion of primary ballots, I had no clue what the office entailed, or why I was supposed to help elect such an office.

That was before the uproar this past legislative session over a bill (SB365) that originally would have exempted district supervisors from the Ethics Act’s prohibition on private interests in public contracts, so they could vote to award state and federal grants to their own farmlands.

Obviously, that would have set a terrible precedent, and in future legislative sessions, you would have had groups and entities lining up with bills giving them all manner of exemptions from the Ethics Act.

Recognizing that, the Ethics Commission directed executive director Joan Parker to lobby against the bill, then fired her last month for doing the assignment so well that they feared legislators would seek retribution against the commission.

With guidance from retiring Conservation District Supervisor Fred Hays, I was able to discern a few things about the office:

| There are 121 Conservation District Supervisors representing 14 districts around the state, and they are supposed to assist local farmers to find ways (mainly via federal and state grants) to reduce soil erosion and prevent flooding on their farmlands.

| For a part-time position, some supervisors have turned it into a fairly lucrative sidelight. (I’m advised many are retirees who regard the supervisor’s position as a handy way to supplement their retirement income.)

I found at least nine supervisors who claimed more than $10,000 in compensation and expenses in both 2012 and 2013, topped by Carl Mullins of McDowell County, who got $18,072 in 2013, and $19,208 in 2012.

As Hays explained, supervisors can claim up to $60 per-day compensation for “performance of official duties,” 51 cents a mile for travel, meal expenses of up to $30 a day, and the costs of overnight lodging.

Claiming compensation is at the discretion of each supervisor, according to Hays. He said he claims the full $60 if a conservation district meeting and travel exceeds five hours, $30 if the meeting and travel takes less than four hours, and said he does not charge for taking phone calls or responding to e-mails. However, he said there are supervisors who claim the full $60 per-diem if they do anything related to the office in the course of a day.

Likewise, he said some supervisors charge mileage only to travel to monthly conservation district meetings, while others travel to any sort of agriculture-related meetings, conferences or conventions, turning in mileage, meals and lodging without restraint.

According to invoices, that includes quarterly meetings of their own nonprofit organization, the West Virginia Association of Conservation Districts, for which the Department of Agriculture has reimbursed supervisors for the registration fee ($265 each), three nights’ lodging, meals, and mileage. (As well as, presumably, $180 in per-diems each.)

“Several (supervisors) travel to meetings requiring overnight stays, going a day in advance to add to the expense reimbursement,” Hayes said. “Several take their spouses and make it a mini-vacation.”

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Brian Farkas, executive director of the state Conservation Agency, said the agency budgets about $700,000 a year for district supervisors’ pay and expenses, and the actual costs generally run between the mid-$500,000s and the mid-$600,000s per year.

After Mullins, the costliest district supervisors are:

Floyd Hodge of Ritchie County, $16,712 in 2013, $17,388 in 2012; Joe Gumm of Randolph County, $14,957 in 2013, $14,254 in 2012; Freddie Fields of Wood County, $14,755 in 2013, $14,067 in 2012; James Moore of Berkeley County, $14,741 in 2013, $11,888 in 2012. (I’m advised Moore is the supervisor who was the impetus for Sen. Herb Snyder, D-Jefferson, to co-sponsor the Ethics exemption bill, and to go ballistic on Parker for opposing it.)

Also, James Fisher of Doddridge County, $14,210 in 2013, $11,424 in 2012; Billy Stewart of Wayne County, $14,741 in 2013, $10,531 in 2012; Carol Cumberledge of Wetzel County, $12,974 in 2013, $11,804 in 2012; and Clyde Bailey of Kanawha County, $10,444 in 2013, $11,024 in 2012.

Obviously, these are the outliers, with most supervisors turning in compensation and expenses in the $4,500 to $5,000 range.

By contrast, Hays (who bills only for district meetings and does not attend other conventions or conferences on the state dime), received a total of $455 in 2013, and $1,268 in 2012. Similarly, Sam Wright of Barbour County received total compensation of $1,487 in 2013, and $1,565 in 2012.

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The legislative rules for the compromise legislation on SB365 are currently up for public comment, and frankly, the compromise is not much better than the proposed Ethics exemption.

Under the law, if a conservation supervisor (or relative) applies for a conservation grant for his property, the state Conservation Agency is to assign that application to a district other than the one the supervisor represents.

One immediate problem is, since there are no plans to conceal the identity of applicants, whatever district gets the application will know it is from a fellow conservation supervisor. Chances of approval? Presumably high.

More on that next week.

Reach Phil Kabler at philk@wvgazette.com or 304-348-1220.


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