Courthouse Fire in W. Va. Reveals Insurance Gap

September 15, 2006

The fire that destroyed the Morgan County, W. Va., courthouse last month has prompted lawmakers to question whether other counties are insuring such buildings adequately.

Only 24 of 55 counties insure their courthouses through a program run by the state Board of Risk and Insurance Management. But coverage in that program varies greatly, an analysis requested by legislators has found.

County commissions set the value of these policies, usually with the help of private insurance agents. With one of the more modern courthouses, Logan County has insured that building and its contents at the highest level statewide – about $14 million. The lowest is Summers County, which has a policy worth only $557,000.

“That won’t clean up the mess down there if they have a fire. They’re going to wind up here looking for more money,” Senate Finance Chairman Walt Helmick told fellow members of the Joint Committee on Government and Finance at its interim meeting Sept. 13.

Helmick’s district includes Morgan County, which lost its 98-year-old courthouse to an early morning Aug. 8 fire. Initial reports point to electrical wiring as a possible cause.

The county insured the courthouse for $2 million, but estimates building a new one will cost $12 million.

“This is a wake-up call for the counties to do something about this now,” said Helmick, D-Pocahontas.

The courthouse’s vault protected most of Morgan County’s records from the fire, and they suffered only some smoke and water damage. House Minority Leader Charles Trump, R-Morgan, noted that the insurance covers only $360,000 for the building’s contents – barely enough for the county’s recently purchased electronic voting machines.

“The expenses facing the (county) commission are simply mind-boggling,” said Trump, a member of the joint committee. “The courthouse is the hub of our whole community, our economy.”

Administration Secretary Robert Ferguson helped provide the figures to lawmakers. He said the fire has prompted the state to check the insurance coverage of its buildings.

That review has revealed that Holly Grove Mansion at the state Capitol Complex was insured for only $156,000.

“We’re talking about an historic building, the oldest building on campus and one of the oldest buildings in Charleston,” Ferguson said. “We couldn’t insure it for what it’s worth. We have to have a balance with that.”

Ferguson’s department has increased coverage on the 1815-era building, which Gov. Joe Manchin wants to renovate soon, to $3 million.

“We’re taking a hard look at every building,” Ferguson told legislators. “We’re going to get with General Services and the owners of these building to make sure they are insured properly.”

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