Fairmont resident Nicole Turner emailed Gov. Jim Justice's office in November, asking if there was any way remaining CARES Act money could be used to help her and others in her community. She didn't get a response. Photo by Lauren Peace

When Fairmont resident Nicole Turner found out that Gov. Jim Justice was still sitting on hundreds of millions of dollars of federal relief funds meant to help West Virginians who were struggling during the COVID-19 pandemic, she said she didn’t know whether to cry or throw up.

That money, said Turner, is money she and others in her community really need.

“There’s a reason why Gov. Justice has it. It’s to help us. So do that,” Turner said.

Documents obtained through a Freedom of Information Act request show that for months, West Virginians like Turner have been reaching out to the governor’s office begging for help. But those cries are largely going unanswered — and not because the money isn’t there.

Of the $1.25 billion in CARES Act funding West Virginia got from the federal government in April, the state still had $665,469,125 left as of Monday — despite repeated assurances from the governor that the money would be spent to support West Virginians by the end of December. 

Turner’s situation is familiar to many West Virginians. When COVID-19 cases began popping up in the spring, schools across the state went virtual and Turner had to quit her job to care for her three children. At the same time, her husband saw his hours get cut back.

The financial pains of the pandemic crept into their lives. They hit a low point in November and December, when Turner would go to bed at night wondering  what she would feed her children, and how long she could make it before her utilities were cut off or she faced eviction.

“Everything was behind, and you felt like you were drowning,” Turner said. “You felt like you were drowning. You couldn’t breathe. There was just no relief in sight.”

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“I don’t only worry about my family, I worry about everybody else around here,” Nicole Turner said.

Turner said she’s stubborn, and it was hard to ask for help. But on Nov. 20, she emailed  the governor’s office asking if there was any way remaining CARES Act money could be used to help her and others in her community who were facing similar burdens.

“Just to let you know, it took a lot to ask for this,” Turner wrote to Gov. Justice. “Usually my pride gets in the way, but when your bank account has been in the negative for weeks and you’re robbing Peter to pay Paul, I have no other choice but to ask for help.” 

Writing that email was hard for her. 

“And when I didn’t get a response from it, it was devastating,” she said. 

Unanswered calls and unspent funds

Justice has already pledged most of the remaining CARES Act money to various projects, saying in December that the largest chunk of it — $445.7 million — would go, controversially, to the state’s unemployment trust fund.

“We’re still going to go with our plan,” Justice said during a press briefing one month after Turner reached out for help. “At the end of the day, there’s not any great big backlog of money that’s going to be there on Dec. 30.”

But there was a large backlog of money remaining, and there still is. 

According to a survey from the U.S. Census Bureau conducted from Jan. 6 to Jan. 18, 35.7% of surveyed adults in West Virginia found it somewhat or very difficult to pay for usual household expenses during the coronavirus pandemic. 

More than 11% reported they were behind  on rent or mortgage payments or had slight or no confidence that their household could pay next month’s rent or mortgage on time. Also, 16.5% reported they sometimes or often didn’t have  enough to eat in the last week.

In mid-October, 29 organizations signed off on a letter to Justice that advocated for CARES money to be used to help West Virginians pay for necessities like rent and utilities, two bills Turner is struggling to pay.

Kelly Allen, executive director of the West Virginia Center on Budget and Policy, was one of the organizers behind the letter. She wanted  to call attention to the needs of West Virginians whose voices aren’t represented in the governor’s office.

“I think it makes sense to have all folks at the table: nonprofit groups, community leaders who are on the ground in the places most impacted,” Allen said. “Lower income folks who might have less political power or less of a voice at the table where decisions are being made.”

But when Allen’s organization, alongside other advocacy groups including the Charleston NAACP and West Virginia American Civil Liberties Union, reached out, their suggestions were ignored.

“We offered to be a part of the conversation and didn’t get a response,” Allen said. 

Little opportunity for input

Months before the advocacy organizations sent the letter to the governor, federal agency representatives suggested  West Virginia officials officially convene a group of local stakeholders to guide the distribution of CARES Act money.

“It may behoove the state to identify a central repository for resources to ensure that the funding opportunities are being disseminated to the right state and local stakeholders,” James Young, interagency recovery coordinator for the Federal Emergency Management Agency, wrote on April 30. “I would recommend some sort of comprehensive state strategy or convening a group of stakeholders to ensure that WV is receiving and leveraging every available dollar.”

Young’s email was sent to West Virginia Department of Health and Human Resources Deputy Secretary Jeremiah Samples, and was forwarded onto DHHR Secretary Bill Crouch. It was obtained through a Freedom of Information Act request.

In an interview with Mountain State Spotlight, Young said the email followed conversations with people from DHHR and the governor’s office responsible for pandemic response. 

Neither the governor nor DHHR responded to requests for comment about the emails, but spokespeople for the state House and Senate said to their knowledge, a group of stakeholders was never convened. 

“Early in the pandemic, the Governor met a few times with legislative leadership (of both parties) to brief them on CARES Act spending,” wrote Senate Communications Director Jacque Bland. “I’m not aware that they have met recently.”

Delegate Brent Boggs, D-Braxton, was one of the representatives at those early meetings. Boggs said two meetings took place and were held via Zoom.

“We basically heard what the governor had planned,” Boggs said. “[There was] little or no opportunity given for input.”

In July, at least 60 members of the House of Delegates, including Boggs, signed a letter to Justice asking that the governor call the legislature into a special session to help guide the state through the pandemic and oversee the spending of CARES funds. 

“Neither you nor anybody else in your administration should be operating under the false belief that you (or anybody else) should possess sole authority when it comes to spending $1.25 billion dollars of taxpayer money and, further, making decisions that affect every individual and business in the state,” the letter read.

That special session never happened. And in a state like West Virginia, where the governor kept sole responsibility for distributing funds, people who needed the money most have been left to advocate for themselves.

‘We’re behind on everything’

Like Nicole Turner from Fairmont, Pamela Howell also wrote to the governor to ask for help.

Howell, who is homebound in Hampshire County because of a disability, said that she had received some CARES Act money for utility relief.

On Oct. 21, two weeks before the general election and more than six months after the state received its CARES Act money, Justice announced he was allocating $25 million to resolve unpaid utility bills — but only for bills incurred from March through July.

The October letter from advocates said $50 million was required to help West Virginians pay their past-due bills. Ultimately, Justice spent only $16.5 million for the purpose. 

Howell said the allocation was far too little to meet her need. 

She reached out to the governor’s office asking for more than the few hundred dollars she was offered and ended up getting nearly $850, an amount that still left her in the hole for her electric bills. 

Howell’s only source of income comes from Social Security Disability Insurance.  She used to rely on her husband to pay the bills, but he died. So has her mother, who used to help out. Her children have pitched in, but they lost their jobs because of COVID-19 and, needing government assistance themselves, cannot help as much. 

And, as the cold winter weather continues, Howell finds herself further and further behind on her electricity payments.

That’s not surprising to the advocates who predicted much more would be required to meet the need than what was delivered.

The pandemic has also been hard on local business owners, like Renay Reed, who said she could use some of the CARES Act money to help keep her Mingo County business afloat.

Reed has worked in restaurants her whole life. In the fall of 2019, she opened up an establishment of her own. Hillbilly One Stop sells homemade food, pizza and various groceries in Williamson, a food desert.

Months after opening, the pandemic came. 

“There’s so little traffic or calls like there used to be,” Reed said. 

“I’m trying to help the community, tried to keep prices as low as we can to make sure people can eat, but it’s just getting so hard to pay for everything,” she said. “We’re behind on everything.”

Justice initially set aside $150 million in CARES Act funding to give small businesses grants of up to $5,000. After reviewing applications, Justice later said only $40 million would be needed.

Some business owners, like Charleston’s Keeley Steele, benefited from the money, even though they said more was needed. But Reed didn’t get the grant; she didn’t hear about it until the deadline had passed. 

“I don’t know what to do,” Reed said. “I’ve taken everything we’ve had and then some trying to keep [the business] afloat and stay here for the community because the community really wanted us to be here.

“I’ve hung in and hung in, and I just don’t know how much longer I can.” 

A cry for help

And it’s not just businesses that could use some CARES Act help: nonprofit organizations have also been burdened by the pandemic. 

Pantry Plus More in Monongalia County helps feed around 1,000 West Virginians each week. Photo courtesy Roark Sizemore.

Roark Sizemore, who founded and operates the Pantry Plus More feeding program in Monongalia County, said the nonprofit organization provided meals to more than 1,000 people weekly before the pandemic. Now that more people face  financial instability, the demand is higher than ever before. He reached out to the governor seeking funding to help feed the hungry residents in his community.

“We didn’t get anything,” Sizemore said. “It’s pretty infuriating.” 

In August, a group of nonprofit and philanthropic leaders in the state sent the governor’s office a proposal that would use $50 million of CARES Act money to create a fund to award grants ranging from $10,000 to $25,000 to certain organizations dealing with the pandemic. States such as Tennessee, Wyoming and Iowa have put aside CARES Act money for their nonprofits. 

According to the proposal, nonprofits, which make up more than 12.7% of the state workforce, are seeing a 300% demand increase for needs and services due to COVID-19. 

Justice didn’t take up the proposal. 

Tasha Anderson, executive director of the West Virginia Nonprofit Association, said the increase in demand coincided with a reduction of money for many organizations, since fundraising activities had to be largely canceled because of COVID-19 concerns. 

While there has been some help from the federal government, Anderson said it “would be wonderful” to see the state take up the proposal. 

“What we see is nonprofits struggling to keep their own doors open while they focus on their own communities and continuing to provide value in those communities,” she said. 

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“Help the people that voted for you. Help West Virginians,” Nicole Turner said.

Back in Fairmont, Nicole Turner said that things have started to improve.

While they are behind on some bills and staying up on the others is still a struggle, her husband got a new job that paid more, and she found a part-time job that works for her family’s schedule. Her father gave them some financial aid, and they recently began receiving food stamps, as well as the second round of relief checks. 

“We’re slowly coming up, but you never know what’s around the next corner,” Turner said. 

That, said Turner, is why she’s going to continue to advocate for herself and her community.

“I’m a worrywart. I don’t only worry about my family, I worry about everybody else around here,” Turner said. “[The governor] doesn’t have to worry where his next meal is coming from. That he’s sitting on $600 million that could help West Virginians is really upsetting.”

Her message for Gov. Jim Justice?

“Help the people that voted for you,” Turner said. “Help us all.”

Lauren Peace is a Report for America Corps Member who covers public health.

Douglas Soule is a Report for America corps member and watchdog reporter. A Bridgeport native, he worked as an intern at the Charleston Gazette-Mail. He has served as editor-in-chief of The Daily Athenaeum,...