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W.Va. mayors discuss infrastructure challenges

Intelligencer/Wheeling News-Register photo by Ian Hicks Charleston Mayor Danny Jones, Huntington Mayor Steve Williams and Wheeling Mayor Andy McKenzie address reporters during a Tuesday press conference at the West Virginia Municipal League conference at Oglebay Park.
Intelligencer/Wheeling News-Register photo by Ian Hicks
Charleston Mayor Danny Jones, Huntington Mayor Steve Williams and Wheeling Mayor Andy McKenzie address reporters during a Tuesday press conference at the West Virginia Municipal League conference at Oglebay Park.

WHEELING, W.Va. — With investment lagging and regulatory costs increasing, local governments are pressed into finding more creative ways to deal with crumbling infrastructure such as roads and water and sewer lines.

Public-private partnerships are one method that’s gaining steam around the country, an expert on such projects told city leaders from around the state Tuesday during the West Virginia Municipal League conference at Oglebay Park.

“They’re increasingly popular with state and local governments to build stuff,” said Steve Torres, a Providence, R.I., lawyer who specializes in municipal infrastructure.

Public-private partnerships can combine the best of the government and business worlds, leading to faster completion times and lower overall costs for everything from highway projects to new water or sewer plants, according to Torres. Some public projects may benefit from access to private capital, he said, while some private entities may find the tax-exempt bonds

According to Torres, a public-private partnership may be able to select the most qualified contractor for a project rather than simply accept the lowest bid, avoiding additional costs on the back end that can result from shoddy work.

“We all know you get what you pay for,” he said. “There are new requirements being placed on us by federal and state government that are challenging and financially burdensome.”

Torres said state and federal requirements for stormwater management will be hitting cities hard.

“The next 10 years are going to cost you a lot of money,” he said.

Proper planning – and asking the right questions – is critical when it comes to infrastructure projects, according to Jim Hunt, who served 27 years as a Clarksburg councilman – including two as mayor – before founding a consulting service for local governments.

Clarksburg learned that lesson the hard way during the early 1990s when the FBI announced plans to build a facility there, according to Hunt. While that project has been a boon for the region, he said, city leaders made a mistake by rushing to build huge water towers to accommodate the FBI’s plan to generate its own electricity on site – an aspect of the project the bureau ultimately scrapped.

“We were not anticipating that with one stroke of the pen, the FBI was going to decide this was a dumb idea. … We built so much capacity for the FBI that it became a liability for the water board,” Hunt said. “Could that question have been asked?”

The Municipal League conference continues through Thursday at Oglebay Park. On Tuesday, attendees also got to take a trolley tour of various project sites around Wheeling, while today’s discussions will focus on issues such as downtown living and police use of force.

U.S. Rep. David McKinley, R-W.Va., and state Senate President Bill Cole, R-Mercer, also will address the conference at lunch.

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