CHARLESTON, W.Va. — State legislators’ decision this year to do nothing to reduce methamphetamine labs while no longer reimbursing landlords for meth cleanup costs could leave the state with hundreds of vacant and toxic properties, the president of the West Virginia Landlords Association said Tuesday.
“It doesn’t make sense to me that they’re going to allow meth labs to continue at the same rate — and we know they’re increasing every year — yet they’re going to pull money to innocent victims who unknowingly had someone make meth on their property,” said Jennifer McQuerrey Rhyne, who heads the statewide landlord group.
Last week, lawmakers rejected legislation (SB6) that aimed to reduce the number of meth labs by requiring a prescription for cold medications containing pseudoephedrine, a key meth-making ingredient. The Senate passed the bill, but the House killed the prescription-only measure.
Meanwhile, the House and Senate passed legislation (SB204) that stops the West Virginia Crime Victims Compensation Fund from distributing money to help property owners clean up meth labs.
If the governor signs the bill, the new law would take effect July 1.
Rhyne said landlords would be reluctant to report meth labs to police. Property owners who couldn’t afford to pay cleanup costs would face fines and condemnation proceedings.
“The victim of the crime [landlords] become the criminal,” Rhyne said. “If someone cooks meth in your house, and you don’t have the money to do the cleanup within 30 days, then you’re the criminal, then you’re not following the law.”
Sen. John Unger, D-Berkeley, who sponsored the bill that stops meth lab claims from draining the Victims Compensation Fund, said the Legislature would look for other ways to help property owners pay for meth lab cleanup expenses.
“She has a legitimate concern, and we definitely need to look at this,” Unger said. “But it shouldn’t be coming out of the crime victims fund.”
Lawmakers passed legislation in 2007 that allowed the crime victims fund to reimburse landlords for cleanup expenses. The following year, the fund paid out about $30,000 for meth cleaning costs.
But meth lab seizures spiked in subsequent years. The crime victims fund is on pace to pay out more than $1 million for meth cleanup claims during the current fiscal year.
“It was just gobbling up the fund,” Unger said. “That money was intended for crimes committed to a person, not their property. It’s money that should be going to the victims of violent crime.”
Rhyne, who also co-owns a company that cleans up meth labs, said such firms and property owners worry that the state might not reimburse pending claims — those already being processed — before the July deadline. The crime victims fund reimburses companies and landlords up to $10,000 for each meth lab cleanup.
“It would be crushing,” Rhyne said. “We’ve already done the work.”
Insurance companies in West Virginia don’t offer policies that cover meth lab remediation, she said.
Some property owners might raise rents and set aside the extra money for meth cleaning expenses, said Rhyne, who does background checks and credit checks on her tenants.
“As hard as we try to screen them, a bad tenant can get in there from time to time,” Rhyne said. “If one bad one gets in, that could be the end of the line for many landlords. They may not have the money to clean it up.”
And what’s next? A condemnation notice followed by a bulldozer, in some cases, she said.
“In Kanawha County, they can come and tear your house down,” Rhyne said.
West Virginia is the only state that reimburses property owners for meth cleanup costs through a crime victims fund.
In Virginia and Pennsylvania, convicted meth manufacturers are required to help landlords pay for cleanup costs. West Virginia doesn’t have a similar law.
Rhyne said the state could garnish wages from meth offenders, make them pay extra court costs, and take away their income tax refunds.
“They should make them pay some type of restitution to the property owner,” she said. “They’re the ones that caused the problem. They should be the ones to pay for the problem.”
Rhyne said state legislators had it backward during the session, which ended Saturday night.
They should have passed the Senate bill designed to eradicate meth labs and continued to reimburse property owners for cleanup expenses, she said.
In recent years, Mississippi and Oregon have passed laws that require a prescription for cold medications used to make meth. The number of meth labs dropped significantly in those states.
“Had they passed Senate Bill 6 [the prescription requirement], they could have left the crime victims fund alone, and the money they paid out would have been so reduced.
“The fact that these other states showed such a dramatic reduction in meth labs shows that it works. But here, the drug lobbyists came in and convinced our legislators otherwise.”
Also Tuesday, the Kanawha County Commission wrote a letter to Gov. Earl Ray Tomblin, asking him to put the pseudoephedrine prescription bill on the agenda for a possible legislative special session.
The bill died on the last night of the regular session because of “technical reasons,” according to the letter.
The House missed a deadline to file a proposed House-Senate agreement on the legislation late Saturday night.
Tomblin’s Advisory Council for Substance Abuse has recommended requiring a prescription for pseudoephedrine as a way to reduce meth labs in West Virginia. But Tomblin was silent on the issue while lawmakers were in session.