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Statehouse beat: Hotels still getting millions

In January 2010, after spending $450,000 to upgrade the circa-1960s on-campus conference center at the Capitol Complex, the Manchin administration put out an edict calling on state agencies to make more use of the state-owned conference facilities in hopes of cutting down costs of state-hosted conferences and meetings at downtown Charleston hotels.

(One of the reasons the Caperton Center was underused, besides its distinctive late-'60s décor, was that it lacked modern amenities such as high-speed Internet, teleconferencing, and computer workstations, all of which were added in the upgrade.)

So did state agencies heed the call, increasing use of the Caperton Center and cutting expenses for conferences downtown?

As is typical for state government, the answer is yes and no.

According to Department of Administration figures, in 2009, there were a total of 174 meetings at the Caperton Center, which was closed from October through December for renovations.

In 2010, the number of meetings in the center -- which features a conference room that can hold 300, and three smaller meeting rooms -- jumped to 376.

In 2011, usage increased to 565 meetings, with a total of 385 bookings through the first three quarters of 2012, putting it on a pace for about 515 meetings this year.

(Bookings may be down slightly this year since the West Virginia Oasis group, the folks overseeing installation of the state's Enterprise Resource Planning Systems supercomputer, is occupying one of the meeting rooms on an ongoing basis.)

That means state payments to the city's two main conference hotels dropped, right?

Yes, but not proportionately.

In 2009, state payments to the Charleston Marriott and the Embassy Suites totaled $1.53 million on 281 invoices. That dropped to $1.38 million in 2010, but increased to $1.49 million in 2011, on 287 invoices.

For the first three quarters of this year, payments to the two hotels are at $940,426, on pace to drop to about $1.25 million for the year.

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While the state Department of Education has an admirable record for making use of the Caperton Center, going from 36 bookings in 2009, to 77 in 2010, and 136 in 2011, it still is the biggest spender at the downtown hotels, accounting for 66 percent of state expenditures at the Marriott and 76 percent at Embassy.

Sample expenditures include $99,641 for the Scoring the AP Personal Task Assessment Test conference, June 10-15 at the Embassy. That included lodging, meals and meeting space for 131 attendees.

The Superintendent's Leadership Institute at the Marriott June 25-27 ran $59,131.

The Marriott does a good job of itemizing its bills, so we can see that costs of having 129 educators attend the three-day conference included $2,932 for breakfast, $11,455 for lunch, $8,200 for dinner, $7,599 for coffee breaks (including $300 for popcorn, $262 for potato chips, dip, pretzels and mixed nuts, and $500 for seasonal fruit with yogurt dip.)

Costs for meeting room set-ups totaled $4,125, audio-visual equipment usage was $12,067 (including a $150 per-participant charge for Internet access), along with the industry standard 21 percent service fee of $9,947.

This evidently was a commuter conference, with lodging accounting for only $1,174 of the total spent. (Lodging for the test assessment conference totaled $78,332, for five nights at $134 a night, totaling $730 per participant.)

Education has accounted for $6.02 million of the $9.17 million of state payments to the Marriott, dating back to 1993, and $6.63 million of the $8.72 million of payments to Embassy Suites since it opened in 1997.

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I haven't covered courts a great deal, but it's been my experience that whatever date a lawyer says he will be filing a legal action, the actual date will lag some time afterward.

Attorney Walt Auvil had planned to file suit against acting Department of Health and Human Resources Secretary Rocco Fucillo, alleging defamation, gender discrimination and whistleblower law violations against department attorneys Susan Perry and Jennifer Taylor on Friday.

However, because of technical issues, the case won't be filed in Kanawha Circuit Court until Tuesday. (That's because Monday is a state holiday ... number nine of 14 this year, if you're scoring at home.)

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Finally, the only televised gubernatorial debate of the election also is Tuesday.

However, I think one moment in the candidates' meeting with Gazette editors put the race into a nutshell:

Asked about global warming, Mountain Party candidate Jesse Johnson said it's a reality and human activity is a major factor. Gov. Earl Ray Tomblin said he's "not 100 percent convinced" -- a great political answer, since it avoided throwing the coal industry under the bus, while leaving open the possibility that he's 99 percent convinced.

Republican Bill Maloney -- whose campaign increasingly reminds me of Cleve Benedict's in 1992 -- dismissed it outright as a hoax.

Tomblin also had the best line of the day. Advised that a previous meeting of long-winded House candidates had run over their allotted time, the governor deadpanned, "That sounds like the House."

Reach Phil Kabler at philk@wvgazette.com or 304-348-1220.


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