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Through settlements from various lawsuits with opioid manufacturers and distributors, West Virginia stands to gain about $1 billion over the next 10 to 15 years.
The money should be used for recovery and prevention programs. To make sure it is spent correctly, the West Virginia Legislature created the West Virginia First Foundation to distribute those settlement funds in the 2023 regular session. Senate Bill 674 legally recognizes the creation of the foundation. It was signed into law on March 11.
The board includes 11 members, six selected by the counties and five appointed by the governor. All six regions elected their representatives this week via a quorum of elected officials from the towns, cities and counties of each region.
The foundation will handle 72.5 percent of the state’s settlement funds, while 24.5 percent will go to local governments. The remaining three percent will be held by the state in escrow to cover any outstanding attorney’s fees.
West Virginia Attorney General Patrick Morrisey addressed the vital need for fiscal responsibility in distributing these funds, noting the time it could take to receive all abatement funding.
“Some of our settlements, we negotiated upfront one-year flat fee, but many others were two years, five years, 10, 15 years, and it goes out over a period of time,” Morrisey said. “That’s why it’s really important that financial management is part of this process as well, so that the money doesn’t get squandered, and that there’s a lot of planning for the future.”
The board members will make decisions about how the funds will be distributed. An “expert panel” will be formed after the board is seated to advise in these funding decisions.
Dr. Michael “Tony” Kelly of Raleigh County was the first board member selected on July 5 to represent Region 6. Kelly was joined July 12 by Berkeley County Community Corrections Director Timothy Czaja and Parkersburg Mayor Tom Joyce, selected to represent Region 2 and Region 3 respectively.
Per the memorandum of understanding that frames the settlement distribution, board members will serve staggered terms of three years. An Executive Director will be appointed by the Attorney General and approved by the board.
At the Region 5 West Virginia First Foundation Regional Selection Meeting, Dr. Matthew Christiansen was elected to represent Cabell, Clay, Boone, Kanawha, Lincoln, Logan, Putnam, Mason, Mingo and Wayne Counties.
Christiansen is also West Virginia’s State Medical Director and the Commissioner of the Department of Health and Human Resources Bureau of Public Health.
“These dollars in the foundation are state dollars, but my appointment on this board is through Region Five. If there is a potential conflict of interest there, I could recuse myself from those votes,” Christiansen said. “But I think the importance here is transparency and accountability around where the money is going so that everyone can see that that there are no nefarious issues that are happening that that would account for that. But as it currently stands, I don’t see any necessary areas of overlap where that might be an issue.”
At the meeting members of the Kanawha County Commission also voted to require board meetings of the foundation be conducted in compliance with the West Virginia Open Meetings Act.
While Morrisey highlighted the need for transparency, he also said many questions won’t be answered until the board is seated.
“I think that as time goes forward, once that board gets constituted, I think they will be setting up a lot of the rules of the road in terms of how there’ll be interactions and I encourage, strongly encourage public processes where people get to participate,” Morrisey said. “So, I think that’s important. I think the goal of this was to have an open, transparent process, but also be able to bring experts together and to allow for some expertise and deliberation as well.”
Region 4 elected Marion County businessman Jonathan Board to represent them on the board Thursday. The region covers 13 counties including Monongalia, Marion, Preston, Taylor, Doddridge, Harrison, Barbour, Tucker, Gilmer, Lewis, Braxton, Upshur and Randolph.
Board says West Virginia has a unique opportunity to address the issues opioids have caused and stop the destruction.
“The question is what happens to the next generation, we are teetering on complete catastrophe,” Board said. “That’s why this is a beautiful thing where we can step in and say, we’re going to stem the tide. We’re going to fill the gap. And we’re going to find solutions. But we have to do it now.”
He acknowledged that although every community represented by the board is facing the same issue, each community will require a different approach to a solution.
“I think that’s what’s so special about this opportunity,” Board said. “Our needs in Elkins and in Fairmont, and in Morgantown and in Harrison County, they’re all different. We’re dealing with the same challenge. But it needs different solutions. And that’s why this is really valuable.”
Board also said there will need to be a robust vetting process to ensure the money is spent correctly and with communities’ best interests in mind.
This is not the first time the state has received a large amount of money to address chronic issues. At Thursday’s meeting David Street, a member of the Barbour County Commission and director of an hospital emergency department, brought up the issue of trying to administer federal broadband money appropriately.
“I live in this world every day, and every night at the commission meetings,” Street said. “My observation is this: in both worlds, I’m seeing 501(C)3s and groups pop up like a plague. It disgusts me.”
Monongalia County Commissioner Tom Bloom, who led the Region 4 meeting, thanked Street for his comment.
“First it was broadband, now its opioid funding,” Bloom said. “All county commissions are dealing with that. I think that’s a concern that you brought up and I’m sure, you can look at several of the other commissioners shaking their heads. ”
After the meeting, Bloom echoed Morrisey and said electing the board is only the first step.
“There’s an expertise committee, and another regional committee, which we have no idea how to set that up yet or what we’re doing,” Bloom said. “I am just glad that this is over.”
On the agenda for Thursday’s meeting was also a discussion regarding best practices for the board. As in Region Five the previous day, the elected officials voted unanimously to require that the by-laws of the West Virginia First Foundation require all board meetings be conducted in compliance with the Open Meetings Act.
“We made it very clear that Region Five, Region Four are adamant, unanimously that these meetings need to be open, so everyone understands how the process is, where the money’s going, and how it’s going to be spent,” Bloom said. “We’re very worried. We don’t want to see a continuance of what happened with the tobacco, we don’t want to continue to what’s going on with broadband.”
Bloom says the region will submit the names of the other candidates to Gov. Jim Justice to be considered for his five appointments to the board.
No selections have been made by the executive office, according to the latest report from Justice’s office. It is not clear what will happen if Justice’s selections are not made clear by the Monday, July 17 deadline. The governor’s selections are subject to confirmation by the Senate.
According to Morrisey’s Press Secretary, John Mangalonzo, the regional selections still have to be certified.
“Keep in mind that an accounting firm has seven days from the date of the election to certify the votes and submit the certified results to the AG’s and governor’s offices,” Mangalonzo said in an email.
- Region 1: Steven Corder
- Region 2: Tim Czaja
- Region 3: Parkersburg Mayor Tom Joyce
- Region 4: Jonathan Board
- Region 5: Dr. Matthew Christiansen
- Region 6: Dr. Tony Kelly
Justice’s office did not respond to a request for comment at the time of publishing.