W.Va. halts funds to clean up meth labs

PARKERSBURG – The West Virginia Crime Victims’ Compensation Fund no longer provides funding for meth lab or crime scene cleanups.

Wood County Victims’ Advocate Tiffany Kiger said the federal government stopped reimbursing the state and that resulted in the legislative change to the fund. The change went into effect in March.

Crime scene cleanup had been up to $1,000 and meth lab cleanup for property owners had been up to $10,000.

“Apparently West Virginia was the only state that was providing those meth lab cleanup funds,” Kiger said.

Kiger and a part-time assistant Amanda Cornell provided 5,105 victims in 2012-2013 with 6,836 types of services.

The victim advocates provide support, assistance in filing for compensation funds, help in understanding the court process, liaisoning between attorneys and victims, keeping victims apprised of court schedules, procedures, providing referrals to other community services if needed, as well as providing support and understanding.

The victim advocate office is funded through the Victim of Crime Act Grant, with the prosecutor providing office space as a match for the grant.

Under the Federal Victims of Crime Act of 1984, federal funds became available to state compensation programs and victim assistance programs. The fund is administered by the West Virginia Court of Claims.

The program receives an annual Victims of Crime Act Grant from the U.S. Department of Justice that equals 60 percent of the state’s awards. The remainder of the funding comes from court cost fees paid by offenders.

Victims have 96 hours to report the crime to law enforcement, which is another change; the requirement was 72 hours. The deadline for filing a claim is two years.

“The federal government did not recognize property owners in cases where someone had a meth lab as a victim,” Kiger said. “So the West Virginia Crime Victims Compensation fund was not being reimbursed any of the monies that it was paying out to victims for the meth lab cleanups,” Kiger said.

She estimated Wood County had applied for between 15-20 such cleanups over a two-year period.

Because the number of meth labs in the state has continued to increase, and the resultant claims went up, the fund went from $6 million down to $3 million as a result of the claims.

The cleanup funds were paid out to property owners.

“There are a lot of times when someone is leasing/renting out property and may have no idea what was going on and there was a meth lab set up in the house,” Kiger said. Once law enforcement shuts it down, the property has to be closed off until it is cleaned and certified to be safe again.

Wood County compliance officer John Reed asked attorneys to review the county’s ordinance to see if it could be applied to assist in cleaning up such properties.

Reed said the county has an ordinance with procedures to follow in the case of an abandoned property deemed contaminated. He was informed the county ordinance was adequate to be used in a meth house cleanup case.

Once the Wood County Abandoned/Dilapidated Building Committee reviews the case, it can be brought before the county commission. Property owners are notified in writing and the property owner can request a hearing.

If the owner fails to comply with cleanup requests, county commissioners can seek bids for repairs, demolition, removal and cleanup. A lien can be placed against the property so the county can recoup the cost of cleanup.

Brandon Lewis, West Virginia Department of Health and Human Resources Clandestine Drug Lab Remediation Program coordinator, said no one is allowed to go back inside a former meth property until it has been tested and if necessary remediated.

Other changes made in the Victim Compensation Fund this year include an increase in funding for victim relocation costs, from $2,000 to $2,500.

Victims are eligible to apply for reimbursement of medical bills and counseling which Kiger said make up the majority of claims filed from Wood County. According to the state Court of Claims, medical victim claims totaled $1,998,331.

Wood County received $92,053 on 29 claims in 2013, according to a report from the state Court of Claims.

Applications are submitted to the state Court of Claims. An investigator prepares a report, finding of fact and recommendation. The maximum award is $35,000 in personal injury cases; $100,000 in permanent disability cases and $50,000 in death cases, with funeral/burial up to $10,000.

Victim claims can be filed through Kiger or by the individuals. More information is available at www.legis.state.wv.us/joint/victims/main.cfm, 304-347-4850, toll-free 877-562-6878, email: cvictims@wvlegislature.gov. Kiger’s office is in the Wood County Prosecutor’s office, 304-424-1776.