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State-run farms lose almost $3 million


The State Journal

CHARLESTON, W.Va.  — West Virginia lawmakers should consider whether the state should continue to operate state-owned farms after the institutions lost about $2.6 million over the past three years, lawmakers were told during a legislative interim meeting on Sept. 17.

Justin Robinson, a legislative auditor with the Legislature’s post audit division, told members of the Legislature’s Post Audit Subcommittee that the state-run farms were originally set up to provide meat and produce to the state’s prisons and other institutions, and to give inmates an opportunity for rehabilitative work. At one time, more than 500 inmates were working on state-run farms.

Robinson said in 1976 there were 14 state-run farms, but those farms have dwindled over the years. There are currently only eight work positions available at a single state prison for the farm program.

Control of the state-run farms was turned over to the state Department of Agriculture. Agriculture Commissioner Kent Leonhardt asked for a review of the farms after taking office in January.

Robinson said the Post Audit Division last reviewed state-run farms in 2002, and found the institutions to be inefficient and financially unsustainable. If anything, things have only gotten worse since then, he suggested.

State auditors suggested ways to improve the bottom line at the state farms in 2002, but Robinson said those suggestions were not followed. He said the farms continue to bleed money, do not adhere to the law that set them, provide much rehabilitation for inmates, and do not file annual reports as required under state code.

The farms once supplied pork and beef to state prisons and other institutions. Robinson said the farms now buy all of their pork and most of their beef from outside vendors, adding a markup before passing the meat on to the institutions. Some prisons have had to throw meat away due to poor quality, he said.

Auditors suggest either doing away with the farms or finding a way to fix the problems with the institutions, and gave the Department of Agriculture until November to come up with a plan for the farms.

Agriculture spokesman Crescent Gallagher told lawmakers the Department of Agriculture wants to develop a plan to fix the state-run farms, but wants more time to come up with solutions. Jeff Sandy, secretary of the Department of Military Affairs and Public Safety, also said the state would like to find a way to make the farms viable.

Also on Sunday, members of the Joint Committee on Government Organization accepted a report on the state Board of Funeral Examiners, outlining the failure of the board to strip the operating license from former Board President Chad Harding after Harding admitted to embezzling almost $1 million from more than 100 pre-need funeral customers. Harding continued to serve as president of the board for about two years after first being investigated by the state Attorney General’s office, and for a year after Harding was permanently barred from selling pre-need funeral services.

In July, Harding resigned as president of the Board of Funeral Examiners, and the board temporarily suspended his license. The actions came after an emergency meeting of the board that state investigators said may have been in violation of state law.

State investigators also said the board appeared to have more concern over protecting a board member than in protecting the public.

Legislators have serious questions about why the Board of Funeral Examiners took so long to take action against Harding, why discipline was not harsher and why Harding was allowed to remain in a position with the board following his resignation.

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