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Montgomery Council votes not to sign WVU Tech move agreement

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MONTGOMERY — Montgomery City Council members on Tuesday voted not to sign an agreement that offers economic support from West Virginia University if the city promises not to sue over the relocation of the WVU Institute of Technology from Montgomery to Beckley.

The council’s five members unanimously voted not to sign the agreement. Mayor Jim Higgins, however, told those in attendance the council’s vote doesn’t mean the agreement won’t ever be signed.

“They voted not to sign at this time,” Higgins said. “And they may never sign it.”

Councilman Fred Lockard, who made the motion not to sign the agreement, said he was moved by locals’ pleas, though he made his decision on purely fiscal ground.

“We have to look how this affects the town,” he said.

Lockard said Montgomery has at least $1 million in bond debt from a sewer upgrade the city made to accommodate WVU Tech. He said if the university leaves and lost sewer fees are not recouped, residents would be left with the debt and that the city could go into bankruptcy.

“They have to be paid,” he said.

Rochelle Goodwin, vice president for academic affairs and public strategy for WVU, said the university has been talking with city officials and that it would continue working with Montgomery to come to an agreement.

Many in attendance, who petitioned council members not to sign with personal stories and criticisms of WVU for about an hour, said the agreement would have marginal benefits for Montgomery and that it cannot be upheld in a court of law.

“They want to take these agreements to the Legislature and wave them in the air,” said James William Keenan, a local lawyer, who went on to call it a “bull----” deal.

The agreement, which Kanawha and Fayette county commissioners and the Smithers Town Council have agreed to sign, offers future economic support to Upper Kanawha Valley governments if they promise not to support litigation that would prevent WVU from moving WVU Tech out of Montgomery.

The college is in the midst of a controversial relocation, which was announced in August after years of speculation it would close. The move is set to be completed in 2017.

According to agreement terms, WVU also will maintain the Montgomery campus for the next 10 years. The university also will help fund economic development plans for each government.

Locals have tried stopping the move in Kanawha Circuit Court, but the restraining order they sought was denied by Judge Duke Bloom last month. He said more time was needed to develop the case, which could be affected by legislation pending in both state Senate and House Education Committees. He set a final hearing date for May and promised a prompt decision.

Should the bills pass into law, language that says WVU Tech’s headquarters remain in Montgomery will be removed from state code. Locals who oppose the move say that portion of state code makes relocating the college unlawful.

Unless the move is stopped in court, WVU Tech will relocate in 2017. Starting this fall, first-year students will be admitted to the Beckley campus. Sophomores, juniors and seniors can finish their degrees in Montgomery.

Reach Samuel Speciale at sam.speciale@wvgazettemail.com, 304-348-7939 or follow @samueljspeciale on Twitter.

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