By PHIL KABLER
CHARLESTON - In his first news conference in Charleston in more than a month, West Virginia Gov. Jim Justice donned a highways worker's safety vest to announce the state will spend an additional $80 million on maintenance of secondary roads through June 30.
"We've got good stuff to report. We're moving," Justice said of efforts to step up maintenance following myriad complaints from drivers about crumbling secondary roads.
However, other topics dominated the 52-minute news conference, particularly as Justice answered questions about The Greenbrier, ranging from the federal Department of Justice investigation of the charity that operates the PGA Tour golf tournament at the resort, to reports that Justice threatened to close the resort in the offseason if the Greenbrier County Commission raised the county's hotel-motel tax from 3% to 6%.
Justice confirmed he met with Greenbrier County commissioners, as first reported by the West Virginia Daily News, but denied that he threatened to close the resort in the winter if the commission raised the tax in order to subsidize additional air service into the Greenbrier Valley Airport.
"I had a meeting with the county commissioners, but we talked about the airport primarily," Justice said.
"I tried to explain to them just what I explained to you. The Greenbrier is still trying to recover in every way, shape or form. ... When anybody layers in another weight on the wagon, if you don't watch out, you could awaken to the wagon collapsing."
Justice said that when he outmaneuvered Marriott Corp. for ownership of The Greenbrier, Marriott management was planning to lay off half of the resort's employees.
He said he has invested more than $250 million in the resort and has personally underwritten more than $70 million of losses on the golf tournament.
Justice said in the meeting with commissioners, they discussed ways to raise revenue to enhance service at the airport, and when commissioners discussed raising the hotel-motel tax, he said he stated, "An additional bed tax is layering something on The Greenbrier that I don't know if The Greenbrier can withstand. But, again, that's not my call."
Since he became governor, Justice has not placed The Greenbrier, along with most of his other businesses, into blind trusts, but has turned over operations of the resort to his daughter, Jill.
While he denied threatening to close The Greenbrier in the offseason, Justice did comment Tuesday that the ideal business model to maximize the resort's profits would be to close after the Christmas holidays and reopen in June.
Meanwhile, Justice said, "I don't have an earthly clue," when asked why the DOJ is looking into Old White Charities, the nonprofit he set up to operate the tournament.
"I've been told I just really have to leave certain things to the attorneys," he said in declining to discuss the investigation.
He did say, "With an organization as big as this organization, you're going to be able to find something that doesn't look right."
Transportation Secretary Byrd White, ostensibly at the news conference to discuss road maintenance, came to the defense of his longtime business associate, saying, "I would bet you my house he hasn't done anything knowingly wrong."
White, named to head the Department of Transportation in March after Justice fired Tom Smith over growing complaints about secondary road conditions, did in fact discuss the maintenance plan, announcing that the Division of Highways later this week will post a list of secondary road projects to be completed by June 30.
Acting Highways Commissioner Jimmy Wriston said the division has been doing an unprecedented amount of ditching, blading and patching in the past month in anticipation of gearing up secondary road maintenance over the next 10 weeks.
Revenue Secretary Dave Hardy said the state has freed up an additional $80 million of funding for that work, including about $35 million that will be moved from other Highways' accounts, $25 million to $30 million that will be swept from other state agency accounts, with about $20 million to $25 million to be funded from road bond revenue.
Hardy said the department has gotten the go-ahead from bond counsel and bond advisers to use a limited amount of bond money for road maintenance.
"We're in perfect compliance with our bond covenants to do that," he said.
A Freedom of Information Act request by the Charleston Gazette-Mail for copies of any correspondence between the Governor's Office, the Department of Transportation, and/or the Department of Revenue and bond counsel and bond advisers regarding any advice or recommendations regarding the use of road bond revenue for road maintenance projects yielded no documents.
In its 2015 report to the governor, the Blue Ribbon Commission on Highways concluded that the state needed to spend an additional $750 million a year to adequately maintain all state roads.
During the legislative session, Smith testified that state spending on secondary road maintenance had increased from about $60 million a year to $200 million annually by transferring funds that ultimately will be used to make payments to pay off the Roads to Prosperity road bond debt.