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Council Takes No Action In Clinic Dispute

Potential lawsuit mulled during executive session

September 13, 2012
By IAN HICKS Staff Writer , The Intelligencer / Wheeling News-Register

Weirton City Council took no action after discussing potential litigation over a proposed health clinic at the future Weirton Elementary School during a 90-minute closed-door session Monday night.

City Attorney Vince Gurrera said multiple issues related to litigation were discussed during the executive session and "the school issue was one of the issues we discussed," but he said he couldn't talk about the matter in detail. Doing so, he said, could compromise the city's strategy if council ever decides to take legal action concerning the clinic, which has led to controversy surrounding the $26.6 million new school slated to open in 2014.

City Council on Aug. 1 unanimously passed a resolution demanding the Hancock County Board of Education clarify its plans for the clinic via a written response within 30 days. The school board submitted that response 35 days later, on Sept. 5, but the resolution's sponsor, Councilman Fred Marsh, said some of the answers presented were vague.

Council also sought assurances that the board of education will comply with all city permitting processes. Marsh believes the school board should be required to obtain a conditional use permit from the city Zoning Board in order to operate both a school and a health clinic on the same site.

West Virginia code gives municipalities "power and authority to require a permit as a condition precedent to the erection, construction, repair or alteration of any structure ... Provided, that no such permits may be required of the state, a county or other governmental entity" for a building designated for use by that entity. It also grants county school boards authority to "provide for medical and dental clinics."

Although Gurrera declined to say whether the permitting issue came up during executive session, he's not sure the law on the matter is so clear.

"We would certainly argue that there's certain exemptions they're not entitled to. ... I don't think it's a blanket exemption," said Gurrera. "We don't know if (the clinic) falls into one of the exemptions or not."

Marsh also believes the health clinic would be an inappropriate use of taxpayer money, noting the clinic was not among projects listed on a $37 million bond call approved by 51 percent of voters in 2010. The state School Building Authority awarded Hancock County $19 million to help build the elementary school and complete various improvements countywide, and Hancock County Schools Superintendent Suzan Smith has said the SBA has granted permission to use some of that money for the school clinic if necessary.

She said, however, that a $500,000 federal grant as well as private funding sources are being sought for the facility, which would cost $700,000 to $750,000 to build.

Change Inc., a nonprofit group that operates its Family Medical Care clinic in downtown Weirton, has a lease agreement with the school board and would be responsible for the school clinic's daily operation.

Some residents have expressed concern that the clinic could have a negative impact on private health care providers in the city, such as Weirton Medical Center. But according to Smith, the clinic would only be open during school hours and would serve only students and staff at Weirton Elementary School.

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