www.charlestondailymail.com Business http://www.charlestondailymail.com Daily Mail feed en-us Copyright 2014, Charleston Newspapers, Charleston, WV Newspapers Red Lobster aiming for 'fancy' http://www.charlestondailymail.com/article/20140729/ARTICLE/140729257 ARTICLE http://www.charlestondailymail.com/article/20140729/ARTICLE/140729257 Tue, 29 Jul 2014 08:07:05 -0400

By CANDICE CHOI

THE ASSOCIATED PRESS

NEW YORK - Red Lobster wants to be seen as a purveyor of quality seafood, so it's getting rid of some of its promotional discounts and plating dishes higher as is the style at fancy restaurants.

The changes mark the latest attempt by the struggling seafood to stop a years-long sales decline as it embarks on a new era. On Monday, Darden Restaurants Inc. said it finalized its sale of the chain to investment firm Golden Gate Capital, despite contentious protests from activist investors. In his first interview as Red Lobster's new CEO, Kim Lopdrup outlined the missteps he thought his predecessors made and why he thinks Red Lobster can win back customers.

"At the end of the day, people are not going to go a Chipotle for their anniversary or their birthday," he said.

Sit-down chains like Red Lobster have been struggling since the economic downturn as people cut back on spending. Such chains are also losing business to places like Chipotle and Panera, where people feel they can get restaurant quality food without paying as much. And Darden's recent attempts to spark turnarounds at Red Lobster and Olive Garden haven't worked.

Amid intensifying pressure from investors, the company announced late last year it would hold onto Olive Garden but get rid of Red Lobster. The company, based in Orlando, Florida, noted Red Lobster's customers were increasingly from lower-income groups, compared with Olive Garden and its specialty chains such as Capital Grille. Investors Barington Capital and Starboard Value wanted the breakup structured differently, with the latter filing a lawsuit last week for records related to the sale.

In the meantime, Lopdrup said, many people still view Red Lobster as "fine-dining for the middle class." But the push to change perceptions about the quality of Red Lobster's food could be a challenge, given recent promotions like "30 shrimp for $11.99," or a lobster pot pie that had just a half-ounce of lobster meat.

Lopdrup, who served as president of Red Lobster from 2004 to 2011 before moving on to head other aspects of Darden's business, said he planned to end such steep discounting.

"You're not going to see any of these low-priced specials that we're not proud of," he said. Popular promotions like "Endless Shrimp" and "Crabfest" will stay, however.

About two weeks ago, Red Lobster also starting rolling out a new plating style for its fish dishes that will expand to other parts of the menu.

Previously, fish dishes were served on rectangular plates, with the fish, rice and vegetables spread out in separate corners. Now when customers order off the "Fresh Fish" menu, they get a round plate on which slabs of fish are piled over the rice, a vertical presentation commonly found at higher-end establishments.

"The food arranged in a way that's more like you'd see at a fine-dining restaurant," Lopdrup said. "The seafood is the star."

As for the food itself, that hasn't changed.

Lopdrup also said he planned to reverse the decision in late 2012 to expand non-seafood options to up to a quarter of the menu and bring the figure back down to around 10 to 15 percent by November.

He declined to provide details on other menu changes planned for coming months. But he said the chain will take a "barbell strategy," meaning it will continue to offer pricier items, including dishes that are more than $30, as well as affordable options more akin to the recently introduced lobster tacos.

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Sold-out crowds await EPA at carbon-cutting rules hearings http://www.charlestondailymail.com/article/20140728/ARTICLE/140729283 ARTICLE http://www.charlestondailymail.com/article/20140728/ARTICLE/140729283 Mon, 28 Jul 2014 19:56:49 -0400

By MARK DRAJEM

BLOOMBERG NEWS

WASHINGTON - The nation gets its chance this week to blast or praise the Environmental Protection Agency's sweeping plan to cut climate-warming emissions by 2030.

Companies, environmental advocates and citizens will sound off at EPA hearings starting Tuesday in Atlanta, Denver and Washington about the 645-page proposal, unveiled two months ago, to limit carbon-dioxide emissions from power plants. A two-day hearing in Pittsburgh starts July 31. The agency says more than 1,600 people are scheduled to speak and by last week all slots were filled in Atlanta, Denver and Washington.

About 300,000 comments already have been submitted on the power-plant rule, with weeks to go before the deadline. And 683 businesses and nonprofit groups registered to lobby the EPA this year, more than any other federal department, the Center for Responsive Politics reported.

"This is the main event for climate action in this administration," Vicki Arroyo, executive director of the Georgetown Climate Center, said in an interview. "EPA actually crafted it to be a very broad approach, and so that brings in a large number of actors."

Analysts say the plan could cut coal use by almost half, while boosting power generated from natural gas, nuclear plants and renewable energy. Environmental advocates say such a shift is long overdue. Many business lobbyists say the change could cause electricity prices to rise and damage fledgling industries. That fight flared last week in anticipation of this week's public hearings.

Business groups appealed to EPA Administrator Gina McCarthy to scrap the plan, saying it goes beyond what's allowed by law and requires fossil-fuel plants to seek reductions from other sources, like getting customers to curb their power demand.

"It is clear that the rule presents a significant threat to American jobs and the economy," the U.S. Chamber of Commerce, National Association of Manufacturers and dozens of other groups wrote in a letter to McCarthy. "We therefore urge EPA to go back to the drawing board on this rule."

McCarthy dismissed those warnings Monday, and pledged to sit down with states and utilities to help work through the EPA's plan.

"We know the purpose of this rule is so important, and that's why we've been so focused on the process," McCarthy told reporters on a call to discuss the series of hearings.

Before the plan was issued, the Chamber released an estimate of the damage to the economy, saying the rule's cost could be $50 billion a year. That estimate was challenged by the EPA because it wasn't based on any plan from the agency. Now that the proposal is out, the group says it would be too difficult to analyze the actual proposal because the EPA set targets state by state.

"It would require 49 different models," said Karen Harbert, the head of the Chamber's energy institute. (Vermont has no fossil-fuel power plants, and so no required reductions.)

About 3,000 coal miners, vendors and coal-town residents say they will rally across the river from the Pittsburgh meeting site, trying to stop a rule they call EPA's "most devastating yet."

On the other side, environmental and health groups are organizing hundreds of supporters to testify, and are airing television advertisements in the four cities that call the Chamber's economic estimate "fiction."

"This shows that the polluters and their allies are desperate," Gene Karpinski, president of the League of Conservation Voters, said in a telephone briefing. The EPA plan "is the single biggest step that the government has taken to reduce carbon pollution."

Karpinski said that more than 4 million people submitted comments on a separate EPA proposal covering new power plants, and said he and his allies also would be rounding up support for the proposal on existing plants. Separately, a radio advertisement from the consumer group Public Citizen will target Murray Energy Corp., the Pepper Pike, Ohio-based coal producer that filed suit to stop the EPA in its tracks.

To be sure, both supporters and critics have their own ideas for changes. Environmental groups want deadlines tightened so emissions are cut sooner, and think states can ramp up use of renewable power and energy efficiency more effectively than the agency had predicted.

It "is a very good and historic start. But it can, and should, set more ambitious carbon-reduction goals," Ed Chen, a spokesman for the Natural Resources Defense Council, said in an email. The "standards significantly underestimate the carbon-reduction contributions by energy efficiency, solar and wind power as clean replacements for dirty, retiring coal plants."

Industry groups say EPA's calculations may inadvertently harm nuclear plants, which emit zero carbon, and in some cases call on shuttered natural-gas plants to replace coal. Also, the EPA both assumes coal plants will be more efficient and run less, which would make them less efficient.

The June 2 proposal from the EPA sets standards for each state based on the carbon from their coal and gas-fired power plants, and then used a formula based on available natural-gas capacity, renewables use and energy use cuts to set state goals for cuts by 2030. Those cuts start to phase in in 2020.

Because emissions from power plants fell about 15 percent from 2005 through last year, actual reductions are much smaller. The EPA said it would lead to $90 billion in climate and health benefits, and cost utilities as much as $8.8 billion.

And, not every business group opposes the plan. Business Forward, which represents companies such as Cheniere Energy, Ford, Google and Pacific Gas & Electric, hosted a call with McCarthy July 24 to rally support for combating climate change.

Inaction on dealing with climate change is an economic threat at the moment, and the plan can be a benefit to the economy, McCarthy told them.

"Businesses are paying the brunt of a changing climate," McCarthy told the business group. "We can turn these climate risks into real opportunities."

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7-Eleven to host open house for potential franchisees http://www.charlestondailymail.com/article/20140728/DM05/140729290 DM05 http://www.charlestondailymail.com/article/20140728/DM05/140729290 Mon, 28 Jul 2014 18:56:12 -0400 Convenience store chain 7-Eleven is planning an open house in Charleston next week to help potential business owners learn about becoming a 7-Eleven franchisee.

The open house will take place Thursday, Aug. 7, from 5:30 to 7:30 p.m. at the 7-Eleven store located at 4929 MacCorkle Ave. in Charleston.

Company representatives will be available to answer questions about potential sites, fee structures, regional details and more. The event is designed for both first-time franchisees or existing franchisees who are considering acquiring new locations.

Those interested in attending the open house are asked to contact 7-Eleven franchise sales representative Desi Desormeaux at (717) 437-5759 or desi.desormeaux@7-11.com for additional information.

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Aldi looks to double number of W.Va. stores http://www.charlestondailymail.com/article/20140728/DM05/140729319 DM05 http://www.charlestondailymail.com/article/20140728/DM05/140729319 Mon, 28 Jul 2014 16:31:17 -0400 By Jared Hunt Discount grocery chain Aldi Inc. plans to open a new store in Hurricane's Liberty Square later this year as executives hope to potentially double the number of Aldi stores in the state over the next five years.

Aldi executives signed a lease Monday to develop an 18,000 square foot section of the former Big Bear into a new Aldi store. It is slated to open sometime in December.

Russ White, regional director of real estate for Aldi, said the company hopes to open several more stores in the state in the coming years as part of an aggressive nationwide expansion.

Aldi, which was founded in Germany and began opening U.S. stores in the 1970s, currently has more than 1,300 stores in 32 states - mostly between Kansas and the East Coast. White said the company hopes to open between 600 to 650 new stores nationwide in the next five years.

"As a company, we're growing at about 120 stores a year, give or take, over the next five years," White said.

The company already operates seven stores in West Virginia. Right now it only has one store in the Kanawha Valley, a Dunbar location that opened in 1997.

White said he thinks the chain could open six to eight new stores in the state - not counting the Hurricane location - as part of the five-year expansion.

"We're excited," White said. "We've got the product line, we feel like we've got a good niche and loyal customers and we feel like we're primed to grow."

In addition to the Hurricane site, he said he is also looking at securing properties in the Huntington and Charleston areas.

Aldi stores have features that distinguish them from normal grocery stores, features that are designed to boost efficiency and cut costs for shoppers.

To help cut down overhead costs, the company uses a cart rental system in which shoppers deposit a quarter to release a cart and get the quarter back when they return it. Customers are also encouraged to bring their own shopping bags.

The stores also have a smaller footprint and are designed in a way to boost efficiency and cut costs.

"We keep our operating costs and overhead as low as possible so we can pass those savings on to customers," White said.

Aldi is also a private-label grocer, meaning it develops and sells its own brands of products. It also tries to tailor those selections to products and package sizes customers want most.

"Normal grocery stores may carry in tens of thousands of products," White said. "We carry maybe 1,300 to 1,400 items, seeking the fastest-moving and most common size of product. Everything is tailored to what customers like most. So instead of having 12 varieties of corn, from different manufacturers and with different sizes, we carry the most popular size and quality as the popular national label, but we sell it in a private label."

White said the combination of the operational efficiencies and tailored product line help customers save more money.

"It's not uncommon for Aldi customers to save 40 percent compared to a full-service grocery store," he said.

At 18,000 square feet, the Hurricane store will be somewhat larger than existing Aldi stores in West Virginia. White said it will be the company's latest prototype store, offering expanded selections that are not available in other locations.

"The store is a little bigger, a little more modern and just gives us the opportunity to best serve the customer as our product line has expanded and the store has kind of grown with it," White said.

An exact opening date for the new Hurricane location will be set later once construction at the site is underway.

Contact writer Jared Hunt at business@dailymailwv.com or 304-348-4836.

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Dollar Tree buying Family Dollar for $8.5 billion http://www.charlestondailymail.com/article/20140728/ARTICLE/140729330 ARTICLE http://www.charlestondailymail.com/article/20140728/ARTICLE/140729330 Mon, 28 Jul 2014 10:15:38 -0400

By CANDICE CHOI

and MICHELLE CHAPMAN

THE ASSOCIATED PRESS

NEW YORK - The fight for penny pinchers is intensifying.

Dollar Tree said Monday it is buying rival discounter Family Dollar for $8.5 billion, significantly broadening its reach as it looks to fend off Wal-Mart, which has been stepping up its courtship of lower-income customers

The deal makes Dollar Tree the biggest player in the dollar store segment, with its more than 13,000 combined locations eclipsing current leader Dollar General Corp., which has about 11,300.

Dollar stores grew during the recession as people across income groups searched for cheaper options. To attract a broader array of customers, they also expanded their offerings to include more groceries and brand-name products, instead of just the party favors and other knickknacks people often associated with them.

More recently, however, sales at dollar stores have been suffering because the lower-income customers who go to them are facing persistent job instability and slow wage growth in the aftermath of the recession. Wal-Mart Stores Inc. and Kroger Co. also have been opening smaller store formats to directly compete with dollar stores. During its current fiscal year, Wal-Mart plans to open 270 to 300 smaller outlets designed to cater to shoppers looking for more convenience.

Brian Sozzi, CEO and chief equities strategist at Belus Capital Advisors, said because the Dollar Tree deal will allow the company to lower expenses by merging its operations, it will ultimately be able to lower prices to better compete with Wal-Mart.

"Now they're going to take the fight back to Wal-Mart," Sozzi said.

The deal also gives Dollar Tree more flexibility.

Dollar Tree is true to its name, with everything in its stores costing just a buck. The fixed pricing has helped attract more customers and boosted sales, but it also puts the company in a tough spot as inflation pushes up its costs and pressures profit margins. Family Dollar is far more flexible in its pricing, which allows it to sell a greater variety of items, including Kraft cheese and Tide laundry soap, at various price points.

Still, Family Dollar, which has more than 8,000 locations, has been shuttering stores and cutting prices in hopes of boosting its financial performance. Last month, investor Carl Icahn urged the company to put itself up for sale. Icahn has built up a stake in the company of more than 9 percent, according to regulatory filings. Based on his purchase price at the time, he stands to make nearly $200 million from the deal.

In a statement, Icahn said he was "extremely pleased" with Dollar Tree's plans, but that he still thinks there are "a handful of potential buyers who could realize greater synergies" with Family Dollar.

The companies did not say if any Dollar Tree or Family Dollar stores would be closed. Dollar Tree, which has about 5,000 locations, will continue to operate under the existing Dollar Tree, Deals, and Dollar Tree Canada store banners. It will keep the Family Dollar brand as well, with Chairman and CEO Howard Levine reporting to Sasser.

Representatives for Wal-Mart and Kroger weren't immediately available for comment. A representative for Dollar General, which last year reported sales growth of 9 percent, declined to comment.

Stockholders of Family Dollar Stores will receive $59.60 in cash and the equivalent of $14.90 in shares of Dollar Tree for each share they own. The companies put the value of the transaction at $74.50 per share, which is an approximately 23 percent premium to Family Dollar's Friday closing price of $60.66.

Including debt and other costs, the companies estimate the deal to be worth more than $9 billion.

Family Dollar stockholders will own somewhere between 12.7 percent and 15.1 percent of Dollar Tree's outstanding common shares at closing. Dollar Tree plans to finance the deal with available cash, bank debt and bonds.

The boards of both companies unanimously approved the deal, which is expected to close by early next year. It still needs approval from Family Dollar shareholders.

Shares of Family Dollar Stores Inc., which is based in Charlotte, N.C., surged $15.08 to close at $75.74 in Monday trading.

Shares of Dollar Tree Inc., based in Chesapeake, Va., increased 1.2 percent, or 65 cents to $54.87.

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W.Va. AG announces $950k settlement with 3 financial groups http://www.charlestondailymail.com/article/20140728/ARTICLE/140729289 ARTICLE http://www.charlestondailymail.com/article/20140728/ARTICLE/140729289 Mon, 28 Jul 2014 18:56:36 -0400 West Virginia's attorney general has reached a $950,000 settlement with three companies over allegations of antitrust law violations.

Attorney General Patrick Morrisey announced the deal Monday. GE Funding Capital Market Services, Trinity Plus Funding Co., and Trinity Funding Co. were among 22 financial companies sued in 2009 by previous Attorney General Darrell McGraw.

Lawsuits claimed the institutions illegally rigged bids, fixed prices and manipulated the market for municipal derivatives.

The settlement closes claims against the three companies.

The companies denied allegations at the lawsuit's filing and denied wrongdoing in the settlement.

The attorney general already reached deals with JPMorgan, Royal Bank of Canada, Bank of America and Morgan Stanley. Other lawsuits continue.

Most settlement money, except for attorney fees and costs, will benefit state agencies that invested in municipal derivatives.

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China profits boost Asia stocks, Europe unenthused http://www.charlestondailymail.com/article/20140728/ARTICLE/140729341 ARTICLE http://www.charlestondailymail.com/article/20140728/ARTICLE/140729341 Mon, 28 Jul 2014 07:11:18 -0400

By JOE McDONALD

AP Business Writer

BEIJING (AP) - Asian stock markets were mostly higher Monday, shrugging off jitters about stiffer Western sanctions against Russia, after China reported strong corporate profits. Benchmarks in Paris and London also rose but many other European markets drifted lower.

KEEPING SCORE: In morning European trade, France's CAC 40 rose 0.4 percent to 4,346.95 while Germany's DAX shed 0.1 percent to 9,635.95. Britain's FTSE 100 added 0.1 percent to 6,796.53. Futures augured a muted session on Wall Street. Dow and S&P 500 futures were both down 0.1 percent. On Friday, the Dow lost 0.7 percent while the S&P was off 0.5 percent.

ASIA'S DAY: China's benchmark Shanghai Composite Index surged 2.4 percent to 2,177.95. Tokyo's Nikkei 225 added 0.5 percent to 15,529.40 and Hong Kong's Hang Seng gained 0.9 percent at 24,428.63. South Korea's Kospi rose 0.7 percent to 2,048.81. Sydney's S&P/ASX 200 bucked the regional trend and was off 0.1 percent at 5,577.40.

CHINESE PROFITS: Profits at China's industrial enterprises soared 17.9 percent in June over a year earlier, the government reported, boosting confidence that the world's No. 2 economy has stabilized after a slowdown. For the first half of the year, profits were up 11.4 percent, a new high for that period.

RUSSIA TENSIONS: Asian stocks rose despite declines in U.S. and European markets on Friday after weak earnings from Visa and Amazon and an agreement by European governments to tighten sanctions on Russia. They will limit trade in defense, technology and other goods and proposed restricting access to European capital markets for Russian state-owned companies. Tensions have escalated after a Malaysia Airlines jet was shot down over a part of eastern Ukraine controlled by pro-Russian separatists, killing all 298 people on board.

ANALYST TAKE: "There is no sign that geopolitics is de-escalating, which should benefit safe-haven assets," while the "macro backdrop in Asia should be one of improvement," said Credit Agricole CIB in a report.

STOCK TO WATCH: Shares of Nissan Motor Co. rose 0.8 percent ahead of the automaker's quarterly earnings report. After the close of trading in Tokyo, it said April-June fiscal first quarter earnings rose nearly 37 percent to 112 billion yen ($1.1 billion), a positive start to a slew of Japanese earnings this week.

US OUTLOOK: Traders were looking ahead to U.S. economic data due out this week. Second-quarter gross domestic product due to be reported Wednesday is expected to show growth picking up. Forecasters expect employment on Friday to show the United States added 235,000 to 255,000 new jobs in July.

CURRENCIES, OIL: The euro edged up to $1.3440 from the previous session's $1.3431. The dollar rose to 101.88 yen from 101.83 yen. The price of benchmark U.S. crude for September delivery declined 39 cents to $101.70 per barrel.

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Utilities spike as coal plants close http://www.charlestondailymail.com/article/20140728/ARTICLE/140729359 ARTICLE http://www.charlestondailymail.com/article/20140728/ARTICLE/140729359 Mon, 28 Jul 2014 00:01:00 -0400

By LYDIA DEPILLIS

The Washington Post

PUEBLO, Colo. - Sharon Garcia is stumbling around her dining room in the dark, trying to find Post-It notes.

As she has for years, Garcia wants to affix the notes, marked with dollar signs, to light switches all around her house. The message to her five kids: Light is expensive.

"Why do you need to turn the lights off?" she asks her son, Mariano.

"Because otherwise there's no money," he answers, dutifully.

"And when there's no money?"

"You can't feed us or take us anywhere."

Bingo, again.

It's not just the light switches, though. Ever since her power was shut off in 2010, Garcia has adopted a Depression-era obsessiveness: She doesn't use the oven in the summer, because it heats up the house, and uses only one small air conditioner. Even the aquarium goes dark when someone's not in the room.

"If we're not in here looking at the fish, it shouldn't be on," she says. Oh, and forget about machine-washed dishes; Garcia does them by hand (the battle is evident in the pile at the sink). The toaster and microwave bear sticky notes ordering the user to unplug them afterward, lest they continue drawing energy from the sockets. "You think turning it off is enough, and it's not," she admonishes.

And yet, no matter how much she rations and cuts, Garcia cannot keep ahead of the fast rise in rates. She runs a daycare out of her home, so her monthly bill of about $200 is already higher than average in Pueblo, where the residential rate per kilowatt hour has risen 26 percent since 2010 - and on a per-household basis, is now among the highest in the state (which seems odd, consider her rent for the house is only $850).

Garcia's extreme frugality is, indirectly, the result of coal plants shutting down as Colorado transitions to renewable energy. But in Pueblo, it happened in a way that has left poor consumers gasping for relief.

To a wealthy community, skyrocketing electricity rates might not have much of an impact: When you have a decent-paying job, what's a few more dollars a month on your utility bill?

Pueblo is not that kind of place. With a poverty rate of 18.1 percent, incomes far below the state average and a third of the population on some sort of public assistance, those few dollars can make a big difference here.

So why have rates jumped so much, so fast? The local utility would point to environmental regulations. Local officials would cite the utility's business strategy.

The customers were caught in the middle.

Soon after buying the local utility, Black Hills Energy opted to replace nearly all its cheap coal capacity with natural gas essentially overnight - which means ratepayers are footing some big infrastructure bills all at once.

It's true, the state of Colorado has pushed its utilities to move away from dirty fuels - years before the U.S. EPA issued regulations on existing power plants, which are expected to shutter hundreds of coal boilers nationwide by the end of the decade. But there are better and worse ways to transition to renewable sources of energy.

"Black Hills is a utility that has moved beyond coal," says Leslie Glustrom, research director with Clean Energy Action. "The way that Black Hills has moved beyond coal is not the way we want to do it."

For more than a century, Pueblo's coal powered the state: The Colorado Fuel and Iron Company, headquartered on the south side of town, accounted for half of Colorado's production. Its smelters employed thousands of people. That business declined over the years, though; the mighty blast furnaces shut down in 1982. The steel plant changed hands, retaining a fraction of its workforce.

Meanwhile, Pueblo still got its energy from a coal plant in nearby Canon City, which had undergone numerous upgrades since its construction in 1897, and two natural gas plants built in the 1940s in Pueblo. The local utility, Aquila, bought energy from Colorado coal giant Xcel when it needed extra; the dependency gradually increased to 75 percent of Pueblo's demand.

Buying energy seemed to make sense in the mid-2000s, when - over strong objections from environmentalists - regulators allowed Xcel to build a new coal-fired plant at its Comanche generating station outside Pueblo, which locals thought would supply their energy needs for the foreseeable future. But soon after South Dakota-based Black Hills bought out Aquila in 2008, Xcel pulled the plug: It could make more by selling the power at retail rates to customers in Denver, rather than wholesale to another utility locally (even though it ultimately overestimated demand, and had to raise prices because of a smaller customer base).

Local officials say that's when the troubles really began. Looking back, they wish Colorado's regulators had pushed Xcel to keep selling power locally, just as the city signed a 20-year exclusive franchise agreement with Black Hills that essentially allows it to do anything the Public Utility Commission approves.

"They built this thing, they cut us off, so we're stuck with Black Hills," Pueblo city councilman Chris Nicoll says. "The citizens always looked at Comanche as their power plant, but there was a middle-man buying power from them. Nobody thought that a year after they built it that wouldn't be the company we were buying power from."

The overall problem: Since utility regulators guarantee Black Hills an 8.53 percent rate of return, it has every incentive to build excess capacity and pass the construction charges on to customers.

At the same time, Black Hills shuttered its three older plants to satisfy requirements in Colorado's 2010 Clean Air-Clean Jobs Act, since they would be too expensive to overhaul after decades of minimal upgrades. That meant it would have to find new sources for the power it had lost as quickly as possible, in order to keep the lights on for 93,000 customers.

"Never in the history of Colorado regulatory jurisprudence has a utility had to replace 75 percent of its capacity essentially overnight," says Chris Burke, Black Hills' vice president. "It's going to have a cost impact to our customers. We don't want to see our costs go up - we're customers as well -but that was one of the unavoidable outcomes of the situation that this utility was in." He also argues that rates are typically higher for rural areas; much of the county outside the town of Pueblo is sparsely populated.

Black Hills won rate increases of 12.6 percent in 2010 and 4.9 percent in 2012 - after asking for much more - to pay for two new natural gas turbines and other infrastructure upgrades. This spring, along with a two-cent-per-kilowatt hour increase to keep pace with the rising price of natural gas, it filed for another 3.7 percent hike to cover the cost of a $50 million wind plant. At the end of 2013, the Public Utility Commission approved a plan to build a $70 million third turbine that would be used as a "peaking" facility - a backup used only very rarely, at times of high demand - which will require an additional rate increase down the road.

That's the part that really ticked off Puebloans: There are lots of other ways to manage spikes in the summer where the grid is under the most pressure, other than adding a whole new plant. A utility in the Northeast, for example, pays Wal-Mart to lay off the air conditioning in its stores slightly, which lowers the peak to a level that existing capacity can supply. It's also possible to just buy power from regional utilities at times of dire need - though that would leave ratepayers at the mercy of fluctuating market prices.

Perhaps the best way to lower the burden on fixed power plants, however, is to harness the area's abundant sunshine by encouraging the spread of solar panels on people's homes and businesses. But Black Hills has repeatedly slashed incentives for solar development, creating a shifting cost structure that's driven local solar installers toward other lines of business, while making it nearly impossible for those who bought large solar arrays over the past few years to recoup their investment.

"Suddenly, the ability of that solar power system to save money and pay for itself was negated," says Paul Huber, a solar installer who had to lay off five of his seven staff members. "It was basically a real kick in the gut to the ratepayers and the solar business. Instead of creating a special rate for people who are enlightened enough to want to invest in solar energy, they punish those who do."

According to the state's Clean Air Clean Jobs Act, 30 percent of Black Hills' capacity will have to come from renewable sources by 2020. The most cost-effective way for the utility to do that is by investing in wind plants, since that's power it can actually sell; Black Hills built a $70 million wind plant. Rooftop solar, by contrast, is simply foregone revenue: The owner of the roof is now no longer a customer.

In any case, Black Hills' profit is on the rise, even as energy use has remained flat. Earnings per share increased by 24 percent over last year in the first quarter of 2014. All while small businesses in Pueblo struggle to pay their utility bills, and local officials worry that the high cost of energy is repelling others from setting up shop, like a factory that might create hundreds of jobs in the depressed city.

"Their shareholders don't care. Their interest is return on investment, that's how this works," says Colorado State Rep. Leroy Garcia, who is pushing a bill to give a ratepayer advocate more power at the Public Utility Commission. "There's a reason why they're making so much money."

Sister Nancy Crafton, a sprightly nun, runs an assistance center for the county's large population of poor Hispanic immigrants called El Centro de los Pobres, handing out donations of food and clothing and helping people deal with social service agencies. She says the number of people getting their power shut off jumped precipitously after Black Hills' first rate hike in 2010, and her nonprofit has paid out $390,000 in four years to make up the difference when people fall short (it was only $20,000 a year before that).

But it's not just the high rates, she says: It's the fees Black Hills charges for initial deposits, late payments and reconnecting once the power's been shut off.

"This is typical. I use these for my documentation," Crafton says, pulling out a utility bill printed on yellow paper out of a folder in her tiny cluttered office. "They owe $8.29. And a $50 reconnect, a $219 deposit, and now they owe $277.21. They can't get ahead."

Getting your power shut off, besides the fees, carries serious consequences. Crafton says that parents who have their electricity cut off are at risk of having their children taken away by county welfare officials, and that anyone without a squeaky clean record can be locked out of Black Hills' "budget billing" program, which helps people manage their payments.

In her attempts to get Black Hills to understand the plight of the people she serves, Crafton led Chris Burke around some of their houses, and wasn't satisfied by his response. The utility contends that there have to be consequences for nonpayment, but since customers have no alternative, Crafton isn't buying it.

"They always come back to, 'if you went to a restaurant, you would have to pay for it.' And if you didn't pay for it, the second or third time you came back, they would say, 'don't let her in the restaurant anymore,'" Crafton says, in her grandmotherly voice. "And I said 'no, I wouldn't eat at the Broadmoor. I would eat at Wendy's, where I could afford it.'"

The housing component of energy costs is particularly destabilizing. Anne Stattelman, who runs a local nonprofit called Posada that aids the indigent, found that 35 percent of newly homeless people she worked with in 2013 lost housing because their electricity service had been cut off.

"I spend my days writing grants trying to keep my nonprofit alive, and the other thing I deal with is Black Hills Energy," Stattelman says. "Black Hills people came to Posada and said 'we can't be the only utility that's a barrier to housing.' And we said, 'Oh, but you are.' Xcel, they'll work with you, they don't want to shut you off. Black Hills, they'll shut you off." Black Hills contends that it's waived reconnection fees for many customers, and that shutoffs have declined since 2010; Stattelman thinks that's because families have doubled up or become homeless because they couldn't afford to reconnect.

Sharon Garcia certainly didn't expect Black Hills to actually cut off her power when she lost her daycare contract with social services in late 2010, which temporarily wiped out her income. Her youngest child was a baby, and as a single mom, she didn't have anywhere else to turn.

"I'm like, 'I have kids, how can you do that?'" she remembers telling the Black Hills employee who came to her door. "Life happens, and you snowball out of control."

Nonetheless, the power disappeared. She and the kids huddled under blankets at night and lit candles, braving a fear of the house burning down to create a little heat and light. Even the gas water heater didn't work without electricity, so they had to boil water to fill the tub. The bill to get service restored was $800, she says, and Sister Nancy referred her to a local government housing agency with grants to bail her out.

Garcia hasn't had her power shut off again, perhaps because of how determined she's been to keep her kids in line. Now the older ones remind the younger ones to turn things off, and yelling reminders is reflexive.

"Emilio, who's in the front room?" Garcia shouts from the front porch. It's a warm night, but the darkness is unsettling. "Go tell him, if he's watching TV, the light shouldn't be on. And close the door!"

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US criticized for sending coal abroad http://www.charlestondailymail.com/article/20140728/DM01/140729361 DM01 http://www.charlestondailymail.com/article/20140728/DM01/140729361 Mon, 28 Jul 2014 00:01:00 -0400

By DINA CAPPIELLO

THE ASSOCIATED PRESS

NEWPORT NEWS, Va. - As the Obama administration weans the U.S. off dirty fuels blamed for global warming, energy companies have been sending more of America's unwanted energy leftovers to other parts of the world where they could create even more pollution.

This fossil fuel trade threatens to undermine President Barack Obama's strategy for reducing the gases blamed for climate change and reveals a little-discussed side effect of countries acting alone on a global problem. The contribution of this exported pollution to global warming is not something the administration wants to measure, or even talk about.

"This is the single biggest flaw in U.S. climate policy," said Roger Martella, the former general counsel at the Environmental Protection Agency under President George W. Bush. "Although the administration is moving forward with climate change regulations at home, we don't consider how policy decisions in the United States impact greenhouse gas emissions in other parts of the world."

Over the past six years, American energy companies have sent more coal than ever before to other parts of the world, in some cases to places with more lax environmental standards.

The consequence: This global shell game makes the U.S. appear to be making more progress than it is on global warming. That's because it shifts some pollution - and the burden for cleaning it up - onto other countries' balance sheets.

"Energy exports bit by bit are chipping away at gains we are making on carbon dioxide domestically," said Shakeb Afsah, an economist who runs an energy consulting firm in Bethesda, Maryland.

As companies look to double U.S. coal exports, with three new terminals along the West Coast, America could be fueling demand for coal when many experts say that most fossil fuels should remain buried to avert the most disastrous effects of climate change.

But the administration has resisted calls from governors in Washington and Oregon to evaluate and disclose such global fallout, saying that if the U.S. didn't supply the coal, another country would.

White House officials say U.S. coal has a negligible global footprint and reducing coal's use worldwide is the best way to ease global warming. The U.S. in 2012 accounted for 9 percent of worldwide coal exports, the latest data available.

"There may be a very marginal increase in coal exports caused by our climate policies," said Rick Duke, Obama's deputy climate adviser, in an interview with The Associated Press. "Given that coal supply is widely available from many sources, our time is better spent working on leading toward a global commitment to cut carbon pollution on the demand side."

Guidance drafted by White House officials in 2010 did outline how broadly agencies should look at carbon emissions from U. S. projects. Four years later, that guidance is still under review.

"They have sat on their hands," said George Kimbrell, a senior attorney for the Center for Food Safety, which has sued the administration over this delay.

Carbon dioxide, regardless of where it enters the atmosphere, contributes to the sea level rise and in some cases severe weather in the U.S. and the world.

Changing the global system to account for production would carry political risks, especially for the U.S., which is trying to boost production of energy and exports even as it addresses global warming.

"The U.S. needs to be pragmatic on this," said Jason Bordoff, director of Columbia University's Center on Global Energy Policy. "If our coal exports are very small and having no or little impact on global greenhouse gas emissions ... the government has to take into account the economic and foreign policy costs of restricting exports." He was a National Security Council energy and climate change adviser to Obama until January 2013.

Over the past six years, as the U.S. cut coal consumption by 195 million tons, about 20 percent of that coal was shipped overseas, according to an AP analysis of Energy Department data.

Less coal being burned here has helped the power sector reduce carbon emissions by 12 percent and left more U.S. coal in the ground. But a growing share is finding its way abroad.

Analyses suggest U.S. exports could be reducing by half or wiping out completely the pollution savings in the U.S. from switching power plants from coal to natural gas.

The nexus of the challenge can be found in and around Norfolk, Virginia, which exports more coal than any other place in the U.S. and is already experiencing one of the country's fastest rates of sea level rise.

When the Prime Lilly, a massive cargo ship, set sail from Norfolk recently, its 80,000 tons of coal were destined for power plants and factories in South America. The 228,800 tons of carbon dioxide contained in that coal disappeared from America's pollution ledger. But it still pollutes the planet.

It's a planet hungry for American coal. U.S. exports to Germany have more than doubled since 2008, providing a cheaper alternative to cleaner-burning natural gas and a replacement for nuclear power, which is being phased out after Japan's nuclear accident.

Last year, Germany's carbon dioxide emissions grew by 1.2 percent, in large part because the country burned more coal.

German environmental officials say the recent boom in coal-fired power is making it harder for the country to meet its climate-protection goals, even as it has increased renewable energy and participates in a carbon market that has lowered emissions throughout Europe.

Activists partly blame the U.S.

"This is a classic case of political greenwashing," said Dirk Jansen, a spokesman for BUND, a German environmental group. "Obama pretties up his own climate balance, but it doesn't help the global climate at all if Obama's carbon dioxide is coming out of chimneys in Germany."

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West Virginia American Water Co. to open doors to public http://www.charlestondailymail.com/article/20140727/DM05/140729378 DM05 http://www.charlestondailymail.com/article/20140727/DM05/140729378 Sun, 27 Jul 2014 17:57:25 -0400 By Jared Hunt West Virginia American Water Co. plans to open the doors of its Charleston treatment plant to the public next week in an event designed to educate people about "all things water."

The first-ever free "WaterFest" event will take place next Saturday at the plant, located along Court Street. The company will host plant tours, educational demonstrations and have recreational activities available for kids in an attempt to help inform the public about the water treatment and distribution process.

"This will be the first time we've attempted such a large event," said company spokeswoman Laura Jordan, who has been in charge of organizing it.

"It will be a combination of educational components about all things water-related, but also fun, family-friendly activities that will be a good lead-in to getting kids in the back-to-school mentality where they're learning something but having fund doing it."

Jordan said other companies under the American Water Works Co. umbrella, of which West Virginia American Water is a subsidiary, have held similar events in the past. The company's Kentucky-based subsidiary plans to hold its fifth-annual event this week.

Local water company officials have considered holding the event before this year, but did not follow through with it.

"It's something I've wanted to do for several years now, and just have not been able to get around to," Jordan said.

However, she said the events surrounding the Freedom Industries chemical leak in January led executives to push forward with the event this year.

"That certainly played a role," Jordan said, referring to the spill.

In January, thousands of gallons of the chemicals stored by Freedom Industries leaked from a faulty tank and into the nearby Elk River. It contaminated the Charleston's water supply, located more than a mile downstream from Freedom's tank farm, tainting the water supply for a nine-county area.

The company had to issue a do-not-use order for the nearly 300,000 people served by the Charleston plant as a result of the spill, which was followed by a complex flushing procedure for the company's nearly 1,700-mile distribution network - and the homes and businesses it serves - as well as weeks of testing the water coming into and out of the system. The company also replaced each of the 16 52,000-pound activated carbon filters used at the Charleston treatment plant.

Jordan said the water treatment and distribution process is something the public doesn't see on a regular basis, and the water crisis demonstrated the importance of teaching people about it and the people involved.

"We certainly made this a priority this year because of that need to continue educating our customers, for them to interact with our employees and for them to see our faces and the human side of water," she said.

Plant tours will begin every 15 minutes during next Saturday's WaterFest event. During the tours, water company staff will go over equipment and the flow of water through the facility to provide a basic understanding of how water is treated.

They will also display and let people control some of the various pipes, heavy equipment and dump trucks crews use every day in the field to repair and maintain the distribution system.

Jordan said there will also be a large tent set up where the water company's various partner agencies and organizations, including the state Conservation Agency's Watershed Resource Center and the Dollar Energy Fund, will provide information about what they do for customers and to provide tips about how to conserve water.

There will also be various activities for children.

The Charleston Fire Department will have a fire truck and house set up that children can use to douse a mock fire.

The water company will also set up a "Splash Zone," featuring water slides, inflatables, games and face painting for children.

Jordan said the company hopes to add more features for the event, which will take place from 1 to 5 p.m. Saturday, Aug. 9. More information about it will be available at the water company's website or at the event's Facebook page, https://www.facebook.com/events/277326412454447/.

She said she hopes this will be the first of several similar events.

"My goal is to make it an annual event," Jordan said.

She said future events would likely take place at other West Virginia American Water facilities, such as the one in Huntington, in order to give other people in different areas an opportunity to interact with company employees and see facilities near their neighborhoods.

Contact writer Jared Hunt at business@dailymailwv.com or 304-348-4836.

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Column: Dealing with high costs of higher ed http://www.charlestondailymail.com/article/20140727/DM05/140729377 DM05 http://www.charlestondailymail.com/article/20140727/DM05/140729377 Sun, 27 Jul 2014 17:57:53 -0400 The new school year is about to get underway creating a flurry of back-to-school shopping for clothing and school supplies. Parents of children entering college face a financial burden of an entirely different magnitude.

As a financial adviser with three children, the prospect of adequately funding college expenses in the relatively near future is at the top of my concerns. How can we better prepare ourselves to deal with these ever growing expenses?

Let's first examine the cost of an average four-year college degree to better understand the challenge.

Nationally, the average cost of in-state, public school is $18,300 per year for tuition, room and board, books and fees. Costs have grown much faster than overall inflation for the past 30 years, averaging more than 5 percent annually.

This rate means for a child born today, the total cost of a four-year degree could be $190,000 as opposed to $80,000 for this year's freshmen. The average private school is more than twice the expense.

How many children did I say I have? Yikes!

The average person cannot expect to pay these expenses without building a fund dedicated to the cause. As with retirement savings, long-term, systematic investments can be a great way to tackle the goal in small bites.

For example, if you wanted to begin investing for your newborn's $190,000 education, you would need to invest $230 per month earning 8 percent to reach the goal in 18 years.

Most states have 529 plans that offer a simple and tax-advantaged way to save. By saving in a 529 plan, you gain the benefit of tax deferral and tax-free withdrawals when used for education expenses.

If your child is awarded a scholarship or decides not to go to college, the 529 has accommodations. Consult with your financial advisor for a complete understanding of 529 rules and other college savings options.

It's wise to seek every source of student aid, grants and scholarships ahead of entering college. Use all resources available to uncover hidden funding sources. Your high school guidance counselor can offer direction, and you can privately hire an education planner to assist you. It's also imperative for children to identify a field of study that will have career choices worth the large financial investment. The key, like with your investing plan, is to start early to maximize your results.

Unfortunately many of us did not begin saving for education early enough to completely reach our goals. As parents we want to do all that we can for our children, but is important not to forgo saving for our own retirement.

Student loans, scholarships and other financial aid sources exist to help defray or delay the tuition bill. Retirement loans and scholarships do not exist to help fund our retirement.

If you are financially secure, you will be in a much better position to help your children over the years.

John Burdette is a financial adviser at Fourth Avenue Financial in South Charleston.

Disclaimer: Securities and advisory services offered through National Planning Corp. (NPC), member FINRA/SIPC, a Registered Investment Adviser. Fourth Avenue Financial and NPC are separate and unrelated companies.

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Social Security faces IT issues http://www.charlestondailymail.com/article/20140725/ARTICLE/140729468 ARTICLE http://www.charlestondailymail.com/article/20140725/ARTICLE/140729468 Fri, 25 Jul 2014 06:39:01 -0400

THE ASSOCIATED PRESS

WASHINGTON - After spending nearly $300 million on a new computer system to handle disability claims, the Social Security Administration still can't get it to work. And officials can't say when it will.

Six years ago, Social Security embarked on an aggressive plan to replace outdated computer systems overwhelmed by a growing flood of disability claims. But the project has been wracked by delays and mismanagement, according to an internal report commissioned by the agency.

Today, the project is still in the testing phase, and the agency can't say when it will be operational or how much it will cost.

In the meantime, people filing for disability claims face long delays at nearly every step of the process - delays that were supposed to be reduced by the new processing system.

"The program has invested $288 million over six years, delivered limited functionality and faced schedule delays as well as increasing stakeholder concerns," said a report by McKinsey & Co., a management consulting firm.

As a result, agency leaders have decided to "reset" the program in an effort to save it, the report said. As part of that effort, Social Security brought in the outside consultants from McKinsey to figure out what went wrong.

They found a massive technology initiative with no one in charge - no single person responsible for completing the project. They issued their report in June, though it was not publicly released.

As part of McKinsey's recommendations, acting Social Security Commissioner Carolyn Colvin appointed Terrie Gruber to oversee the project last month. Gruber had been an assistant deputy commissioner.

"We asked for this, this independent look, and we weren't afraid to hear what the results are," Gruber said in an interview Wednesday. "We are absolutely committed to deliver this initiative and by implementing the recommendations we obtained independently, we think we have a very good prospect on doing just that."

The revelations come at an awkward time for Colvin. President Barack Obama nominated Colvin to a full six-year term in June, and she now faces confirmation by the Senate. Colvin was deputy commissioner for 3 1/2 years before becoming acting commissioner in February 2013.

The Senate Finance Committee has scheduled a confirmation hearing for Colvin for July 31.

The House Oversight Committee is also looking into the computer program, and whether Social Security officials tried to bury the McKinsey report. In a letter to Colvin on Wednesday, committee leaders requested all documents and communications about the computer project since March 1.

The letter was signed by Rep. Darrell Issa, R-Calif., chairman of the Oversight Committee, and Reps. Jim Jordan, R-Ohio, and James Lankford, R-Okla. They called the project "an IT boondoggle."

The troubled computer project is known as the Disability Case Processing System, or DCPS. It was supposed to replace 54 separate, antiquated computer systems used by state Social Security offices to process disability claims. As envisioned, workers across the country would be able to use the system to process claims and track them as benefits are awarded or denied and claims are appealed.

But as of April, the system couldn't even process all new claims, let alone accurately track them as they wound their way through the system, the report said. In all, more than 380 problems were still outstanding, and users hadn't even started testing the ability of the system to handle applications from children.

"The DCPS project is adrift, the scope of the project is ambiguous, the project has been poorly executed, and the project's development lacks leadership," the three lawmakers said in their letter to Colvin.

Maryland-based Lockheed Martin was selected in 2011 as the prime contractor on the project. At the time, the company valued the contract at up to $200 million, according to a press release.

McKinsey's report does not specifically fault Lockheed but raises the possibility of changing vendors and says Social Security officials need to better manage the project.

Gruber said Social Security will continue to work with Lockheed "to make sure that we are successful in the delivery of this program."

Steve Field, a spokesman for Lockheed Martin, would only say that the company is committed to delivering the program.

Nearly 11 million disabled workers, spouses and children get Social Security disability benefits. That's a 45 percent increase from a decade ago. The average monthly benefit for a disabled worker is $1,146.

The report comes as the disability program edges toward the brink of insolvency. The trust fund that supports Social Security's disability program is projected to run out of money in 2016. At that point, the system will collect only enough money in payroll taxes to pay 80 percent of benefits, triggering an automatic 20 percent cut in benefits.

Congress could redirect money from Social Security's much bigger retirement program to shore up the disability program, as it did in 1994. But that would worsen the finances of the retirement program, which is facing its own long-term financial problems.

Social Security disability claims are first processed through a network of field offices and state agencies called Disability Determination Services. There are 54 of these offices, and they all use different computer systems, Gruber said.

If your claim is rejected, you can ask the state agency to reconsider. If your claim is rejected again, you can appeal to an administrative law judge, who is employed by the Social Security Administration.

It takes more than 100 days, on average, to processing initial applications, according to agency data. The average processing time for a hearing before an administrative law judge is more than 400 days.

The new processing system is supposed to help alleviate some of these delays.

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Jared Hunt column: 'Backpack Index' records jump in school costs http://www.charlestondailymail.com/article/20140724/DM05/140729622 DM05 http://www.charlestondailymail.com/article/20140724/DM05/140729622 Thu, 24 Jul 2014 00:01:00 -0400 For parents, it's the most wonderful time of the year.

For students - not so much.

With school starting next month, the back-to-school shopping season is upon us. And while parents may be looking forward to sending their little angels back to classes on a daily basis, they might not like what they have to pay to get their kids ready to go.

Earlier this week, Huntington Bank released its eighth "Backpack Index," which measures the costs associated with sending K-12 students to school each year. That includes the costs of supplies like notebooks, folders and calculators, as well as field trip and school fees and the costs of participating in sports and band.

To parents' dismay, the index this year saw some of its biggest year-over-year cost increases in its eight-year history.

Parents of middle school children can expect to pay nearly 20 percent more for supplies and school costs this year, according to the index. Costs for elementary schoolchildren increased by 11 percent, while the cost for high school students increased by about 5 percent.

The increases in all three categories far outpaced the economy's overall 2.1 percent inflation increase, as measured by the Consumer Price Index, over the same time period. Meanwhile, parents' average hourly earnings rose just 2.05 percent over the same time, according to data from the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics.

"With the slow growth in wages, it is difficult for many families to meet the rising costs of sending children to school," said George Mokrzan, Huntington Bank's director of economics.

Huntington staff compile the list each year by obtaining classroom supply lists from a cross-section of schools throughout the six states it serves - West Virginia, Ohio, Michigan, Pennsylvania, Indiana, and Kentucky - and compiling these into one representative list of required supplies and fees.

The costs are then determined by selecting moderately priced items at online retailers.

The most expensive supply for high school and middle school students is a $129.99 TI-84 graphing calculator. The index noted more middle schools are requiring graphing calculators for students, since Algebra and other subjects are now being taught earlier in schools. That helped bump up costs for those students.

The most expensive fee came from a one-year music instrument rental (priced at $335-345). High school students also face costs from ACT, SAT and AP testing materials.

The average elementary school parent could expect to pay $642 for all of their child's supplies and fees, with costs increasing to $918 for middle school parents and topping out at $1,284 for parents of high schoolers.

Huntington said most of the general increases in the Backpack Index this year were the result of fee hikes for standardized testing as well as school fees for field trips and pay-to-play fees for sports. Parents of high and middle school students may also have to buy their children computer tablets, as more schools are now using those devices in the classroom.

Since the bank first introduced the index in 2007, costs have cumulatively increased 83 percent for elementary school students, 73 percent for middle school students and 44 percent for high school students.

Though there are increases this year, the bank said parents can take some steps to save money.

"We recommend that parents begin to take advantage of sales for classroom supplies and activities from now until September in order to save money," Mokrzan said.

The bank recommended starting early, shopping around, checking newspaper circulars for the best deals, try to recycle supplies bought in the past for older kids and ask neighbors and friends if they have old instruments or sports equipment they are no longer using.

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W.Va. workers' compensation rates to drop again http://www.charlestondailymail.com/article/20140724/DM05/140729537 DM05 http://www.charlestondailymail.com/article/20140724/DM05/140729537 Thu, 24 Jul 2014 16:33:11 -0400 By Jared Hunt West Virginia employers are set to see their workers' compensation premiums drop by about $32 million in the coming year, Gov. Earl Ray Tomblin announced Thursday.

It will be employers' tenth consecutive reduction in workers' comp rates when it takes effect later this year.

Tomblin said the National Council on Compensation Insurance earlier this week filed a proposed reduction in workers' compensation loss cost rates - a key ingredient used to determine workers' compensation insurance premiums - with the Offices of the West Virginia Insurance Commissioner.

Loss cost rates are the portion of the workers' compensation premium that reflect the pure cost of workers compensation claims, including the cost of medical care, lost wages, and prescriptions. They do not include an insurance company's operating expenses, taxes and profit margins, which also affect rates.

The NCCI is West Virginia's rating and statistical agent that calculates and files the loss cost rates based on an actuarial analysis. The organization has proposed a 9.1 percent decrease in loss cost rates with the West Virginia Insurance Commissioner.

If approved by the Insurance Commissioner's office, the rate reduction, which would take effect Nov. 1, would result in about $32 million worth of savings and premium reductions for employers over the next year.

"We've worked hard in West Virginia to create a business climate that encourages companies to innovate, expand and create new jobs," Tomblin said in a press release. "With this rate reduction, our businesses are reaping the rewards of both lower taxes and lower workers' compensation insurance premiums. The new rates are an excellent sign that our state continues to move in the right direction for continued job growth."

In 2005, then-Gov. Joe Manchin successfully pushed through reform to privatize state's workers' compensation system. The state-owned monopoly that was the Workers' Compensation Commission became the private BrickStreet Mutual Insurance Co. on Jan. 1, 2006.

"This rate reduction, and the related premium savings to employers, is a positive indication of the progress that has been made in our market," said state Insurance Commissioner Michael Riley.

Since the switch, workers' compensation loss costs rates have dropped 58.7 percent. That has resulted in more than $280 million in savings for West Virginia employers since the system was privatized, according to the governor's office.

Manchin, who has since been elected to the U.S. Senate, said privatizing workers' compensation was "one of my most rewarding achievements and impactful issues my administration addressed" when he was governor.

"West Virginia is reaping the fruits of our labor from the reforms of the state's workers' compensation program," said Manchin, D-W.Va.

"Now, our state has gotten its financial house in order, and we are living within our means, enjoying a steady revenue stream, and have once again become competitive in West Virginia and around the country," he said.

Contact writer Jared Hunt at business@dailymailwv.com or 304-348-4836.

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WesBanco reports record earnings http://www.charlestondailymail.com/article/20140724/DM05/140729515 DM05 http://www.charlestondailymail.com/article/20140724/DM05/140729515 Thu, 24 Jul 2014 19:14:43 -0400 Wheeling-based banking company WesBanco Inc. reported record quarterly earnings late Wednesday.

The multi-state bank holding company said it earned $18.9 million, or 64 cents a share, in the second quarter, up more than 10 percent from its earnings in the second quarter last year.

For the first six months of the year, the company earned $35.3 million, up from $33 million in the first half of last year.

The company's total assets have increased 3.2 percent, or $193 million, over the past year primarily due to loan growth. The bank said it issued $1.4 billion worth of loans in the last year.

The company said loan growth was driven by increased business activity in the Marcellus and Utica shale regions, as well as additional lending personnel, focused marketing efforts and an expanded presence in urban markets.

"The second quarter was impressive and we are very pleased with the results," said Todd Clossin, WesBanco's president and CEO. "Expenses continue to be well managed as we stay disciplined and continue our focus on gaining efficiencies from our infrastructure investments. The management at WesBanco is a team that, while recognizing the successes of this quarter, is prepared to further improve the organization going forward."

With $6.3 billion in assets, WesBanco operates 119 branch locations and 106 ATMs in West Virginia, Ohio and Pennsylvania.

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West Side business expo next week http://www.charlestondailymail.com/article/20140724/DM05/140729516 DM05 http://www.charlestondailymail.com/article/20140724/DM05/140729516 Thu, 24 Jul 2014 19:14:34 -0400 Businesses on Charleston's West Side will come together for the third annual West Side Main Street Business Expo Thursday, Aug. 7, at Royal Automotive.

Area department and supply stores, restaurants and banks will be among those with displays at the expo, which is designed as a networking event for area residents and business leaders.

"The expo is a fantastic way to learn about the diverse range of businesses and nonprofit organizations on the West Side," said Stephanie Johnson, executive director of West Side Main Street. "We've had around 20 businesses attend in previous years and expect an even larger turnout this year."

West Side Main Street is a community revitalization affiliate program of the West Virginia State University Extension Service and the City of Charleston.

The expo costs $5 to attend and includes food and beverages catered by Best of Crete. Booths are available for businesses to exhibit at a cost of $50. Royal Automotive is located at 1901 Patrick St.

For more information, contact Stephanie Johnson at 304-941-4479 or director@westsidemainstreet.org.

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Dick's Sporting Goods lays off 478 golf pros http://www.charlestondailymail.com/article/20140724/ARTICLE/140729514 ARTICLE http://www.charlestondailymail.com/article/20140724/ARTICLE/140729514 Thu, 24 Jul 2014 19:15:21 -0400 IMPERIAL, Pa. - The western Pennsylvania-based Dick's Sporting Goods chain has laid off 478 Professional Golfers' Association teaching pros months after the company reported that sales of golf gear are dwindling.

Dick's, based in the Pittsburgh suburb of Findlay Township, didn't immediately respond Thursday to the layoffs, which were announced by the PGA on Wednesday.

Dick's operates more than 500 stores nationwide, most under the Dick's name. Those stores sell golf equipment, as do 79 stores the chain operates under the Golf Galaxy name.

Earlier this year, Dick's announced it expected its year-end profits to drop about 10 percent because of reduced sales in golf equipment, which the company says was offsetting gains it made selling other sports gear.

The PGA says Dick's still employs PGA pros at its Golf Galaxy stores, but not at Dick's locations.

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US economy, though sluggish, may now be sturdier http://www.charlestondailymail.com/article/20140724/ARTICLE/140729588 ARTICLE http://www.charlestondailymail.com/article/20140724/ARTICLE/140729588 Thu, 24 Jul 2014 06:33:10 -0400

By The Associated Press

WASHINGTON (AP) - Out of a seemingly hollow recovery from the Great Recession, a more durable if still slow-growing U.S. economy has emerged.

That conclusion, one held by a growing number of economists, might surprise many people. After all, in the five years since the recession officially ended, Americans' pay has basically stagnated. Millions remain unemployed or have abandoned their job searches. Economic growth is merely plodding along.
Yet as the economy has slowly healed, analysts say it has replaced some critical weaknesses with newfound strengths. Among the trends:
- Fewer people are piling up credit card debt or taking on risky mortgages. This should make growth more sustainable and avoid a cycle of extreme booms and busts.
- Banks are more profitable and holding additional cash to help protect against a repeat of the 2008 market meltdown.
- More workers hold advanced degrees. Education typically leads to higher wages and greater job security, reducing the likelihood of unemployment.
- Inflation is under control. Runaway price increases would be destructive. Low inflation can lay a foundation for growth.
- Millions who have reached retirement age are staying on the job. This lessens the economic drag from retiring baby boomers and helps sustain consumer spending.
Over the long run, such trends could help produce a sturdier economy, one less prone to the kind of runaway growth that often ends in a steep and sudden slump.
The downside? At least in the short term, these same trends have prevented the economy from accelerating. When consumers borrow and spend less freely, for example, they restrain growth.
And when people seek to work longer or become more educated, often there aren't enough jobs for all of them, at least not right away. People with advanced degrees can often find lower-paying jobs that don't require much education. But when they do, they tend to push some people with only a high school education into unemployment.
One of the most striking trends in the recovery has been an aversion to personal debt. A typical U.S. household owes $7,122 in credit card debt, $1,618 less than at the start of the recession, according to analysis of New York Federal Reserve data by the firm Nerd Wallet. (After factoring in inflation, the balance is $2,900 lower.)
Kevin Quigley, a massage therapist, found that by the time the recession struck, his card balance had ballooned to as much as $35,000. The 33-year old from University City, Missouri ascribed that to "thinking that I needed a lot of things."
Beginning in 2010, he consolidated his card debt and reduced it by $300 a month until it disappeared.
"Peace of mind became more important to me than stuff," Quigley said.
Two primary factors explain the decline in card debt: Lending standards were tightened, and consumers "just kind of froze in place," said Jelena Ewart, general manager of credit cards and banking at Nerd Wallet.
The American Bankers Association says card debt as a share of people's income has reached its lowest level in more than a decade. People increasingly pay off balances each month. And just 2.44 percent of card accounts are delinquent, compared with the 15-year average of 3.82 percent.
Researchers at the Cleveland Fed found that after adjusting for inflation, debt from mortgage and auto loans remains below pre-recession levels. Applications for credit by "deep subprime" borrowers - those most at risk of defaulting - have dropped 36 percent from pre-recession highs.
Because people are taking on less debt, they're also spending less. That phenomenon has slowed growth because consumers fuel most of the U.S. economy.
Consumer spending has risen just 10.8 percent during the five-year recovery - the smallest increase among expansions in the last 55 years, said Carl Tannenbaum, chief economist at Northern Trust.
But after the frugality of the past half-decade, money that once went to repaying credit cards can now be spent in ways that boost growth.
"There are some families who can contemplate vacations for the first time in a while, who can contemplate replacing their jalopies," Tannenbaum said.
Declining debt loads have coincided with stronger cash buffers that banks have built up to protect against possible losses. More than 30 percent of banks were unprofitable in 2009, a share that sank to 7.28 percent through the first three months of 2014, according to the Federal Deposit Insurance Corporation.
Fed Chair Janet Yellen has said she no longer sees a "systemic threat" from over-extended banks.
Inflation has also been running below the Fed's 2 percent target. Not only have consumers enjoyed relatively stable prices, but the Fed has been able to stimulate growth by holding interest rates down without risking any immediate threat of igniting inflation.
Americans have also used the recovery to return to school. The share of adults with advanced degrees jumped to 11.7 percent from 9.9 percent in 2007, according to the Census Bureau. During the recovery, the number of Americans with a college degree surpassed the number with only a high school diploma for the first time.
The unemployment rate for college graduates is 3.3 percent vs. 5.8 percent for high school graduates and 9.1 percent for high school dropouts. Someone with a master's degree earns on average $69,108 a year, more than double what someone with only a high school diploma earns.
Over time, more people with advanced degrees should put a greater percentage of Americans into better-paying skilled jobs. For now, though, some educated Americans have moved into jobs requiring only a high school degree and left many of those without degrees jobless. Just 54 percent of high school graduates are employed, compared with 60 percent before the recession.
A similar development has occurred as workers have delayed retirement. The proportion of Americans older than 65 who are working has risen to 22.7 percent from roughly 20 percent during the recession.
These older workers tend to be better educated, so they command higher pay than the broader population, Gary Burtless, a senior fellow at the Brookings Institution, has concluded. And by continuing to draw a paycheck, they pay taxes, which should ease the budgetary pressures on younger generations.
Still, the rising proportion of older workers has kept some younger workers from receiving promotions or being hired.
"For lot of folks in their 20s and 30s looking to get established in their careers, it does represent a hardship," Burtless said.
That hardship should gradually diminish on the strength of continued job growth. Employers have added more than 200,000 jobs a month for five straight months - the best such stretch since the late 1990s.
"If the economy gets close to its full employment potential, it's a great thing," Burtless said.

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Ashton Place Kroger renovation complete http://www.charlestondailymail.com/article/20140723/DM05/140729623 DM05 http://www.charlestondailymail.com/article/20140723/DM05/140729623 Wed, 23 Jul 2014 21:08:50 -0400 By Jared Hunt CHARLESTON, W.Va. - After more than a year, the multimillion-dollar renovation of the Ashton Place Kroger is finally complete.

Charleston Mayor Danny Jones and Councilwoman Mary Jean Davis joined Kroger Co. executives for a ribbon-cutting ceremony Wednesday morning to mark the completion of the nearly $13 million makeover of the South Hills store and tour some of its new features.

"It's unbelievable," Jones said of the renovation. "I haven't been in this store in quite some time and this is really upscale stuff. This is what the stores look like around the country. It's pretty incredible."

The remodeled store features expanded natural foods and organics, meat, seafood, dairy, deli and frozen foods sections along with a larger cheese shop and olive and sushi bars. Two chefs now prepare hot meals and a salad bar for lunch and dinner.

The ceiling has been raised and more than 100 skylights and LED-light fixtures added to make the store brighter and boost its energy efficiency.

The company spent $12.9 million to renovate the store. That included purchasing additional land from the city to expand from 53,000 to 70,000 square feet. The expansion created an additional 25 jobs at the location, boosting employment from 125 to 150 people.

Store manager Joe LaManca said the 65-week remodel and expansion project was a challenge for employees and customers.

"We stayed open the entire time, so it was a lot of work," LaManca said. "Our customers were great; they stuck with us the whole time to see the end product and then the rewards that came from that. And our employees were fantastic. They came in every day and things would be moved, so they had to do their jobs differently every day.

"We're just thrilled that it's complete," he said. "It looks great and now our customers can come in and get the best shopping experience they possibly can."

Davis said some of the concerns going into the project involved traffic control around the construction area and the noise it might create, because construction was mainly going to occur during the overnight hours. But she said the company was able to keep both factors under control during the renovation.

"I think what's incredibly unbelievable is that they did all this renovation and kept this store open," Davis said. "It's worked out well."

LaManca said the renovation was necessary to modernize the store and bring it more in line with what shoppers see in newer stores being built around the country.

"Ashton Place Kroger is 25 years old," he said. "In 1989 the original store was a big store, but it's not anymore."

He said in order to carry the items customers expect the store to carry and offer them the variety of departments and products customers deserve, the store needed to expand. The expanded departments now let the store provide new options that were previously unavailable.

Meat Manager Rodney Jones said the store now receives overnight fish shipments from either Hawaii or Seattle nearly every day of the week. Staff place daily orders with providers in both locations requesting particular types of fish for the market.

"They give us a call, we'll say what we want and they'll go out and catch it," Jones said. "Then they ship it to us overnight via UPS."

The store gets six different varieties of fish from Hawaii and five varieties from Seattle. On Wednesday morning, the store unpacked a shipment from Hawaii that included whole red parrotfish and mahi mahi that were waiting on ice for customers.

Rebecca Douglas, 72, said she's been driving more than 20 miles from her Sissonville home to the Ashton Place Kroger for more than 20 years to take advantage of the expanded selection the store has typically offered.

"I really love this store," Douglas said. "The thing I like about it most is you can almost always find what you're looking for, and if you can't, someone will come up and help you find it."

As she browsed the expanded produce section Wednesday, she said she's really enjoyed seeing the new products added to the store during the renovation.

"I've slowly watched the construction and it's just been amazing," she said. "It's wonderful, absolutely wonderful."

Contact writer Jared Hunt at business@dailymailwv.com or 304-348-4836.

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Hospital board talks building projects http://www.charlestondailymail.com/article/20140723/DM01/140729646 DM01 http://www.charlestondailymail.com/article/20140723/DM01/140729646 Wed, 23 Jul 2014 18:36:32 -0400 By Charlotte Ferrell Smith Slides displaying plans and progress on building projects at Charleston Area Medical Center show how patient care will continue to improve, said Dale Wood, chief quality officer.

Wood, who made the presentation on Wednesday morning during the regular meeting of the CAMC Board of Trustees, discussed how the process will affect patients, visitors, parking and staff.

"It's like a bunch of dominoes to make things happen," he said.

While officials were already aware of the projects, Wood quickly went through a series of slides to update the board.

Construction at Memorial means losing parking spaces while large equipment is situated in the area through February of 2015. Additional staff will be on hand to guide people safely away from the construction zone. While parking near the work area will be lost for safety reasons, additional parking will be opened near the Heart and Vascular Center. Property purchased near Aladdin's Restaurant on Chesterfield Avenue will be available for staff parking with a shuttle service provided. Construction at Memorial will be done in stages with three new levels adding 109,830 square feet of space and 48 additional patient beds, including 16 for critical care and 32 for general medical care. There will also be space for adding another 48 beds when authorization and funding make that possible.

As CAMC continues to expand and offer additional services, temporary inconveniences will be compensated in terms of better patient care, he said.

The new CAMC Cancer Center is moving along as expected.

"We are on budget and on schedule," he said. "We plan to see patients in May."

David Ramsey, president and chief executive officer, said he was surprised with the building progress he saw on a recent tour of the Cancer Center.

University of Charleston President Ed Welch, who heads the quality committee, said advance directives and living wills become a challenge for hospital officials when family does not agree with a patient's wishes. However, the written decision of the patient must prevail in these instances, he said.

"We continue to work on that touchy, personal issue," he said.

He also suggested officials take a look at when a patient needs life prolonging therapy or palliative care. For example, it could be noted whether a patient was admitted through Hospice or traditional means in order to identify more quickly what kind of care may be needed.

He also mentioned a recent "miracle case" whereby a patient was admitted with numerous gunshot wounds, went home within a month, and continues therapy on an outpatient basis.

"It's phenomenal what CAMC can do to assist people," he said.

Larry Hudson, CAMC chief financial officer, said finances have improved for several reasons, including Medicaid revisions.

Gail Pitchford, CAMC foundation president, presented a strategic plan for continued fundraising. Last May, the foundation exceeded its $15 million fundraising goal for the new Cancer Center.

"With the Cancer Center under construction, donors who drive by can see that the money they give changes the delivery of health care in this community," she said. "One object of the campaign was not just to raise money but to raise awareness of the CAMC Foundation. We acquired 2,000 new donors as a result of the campaign. We've acquired new donors and we've got to keep them."

She called upon board members to make her aware of those who have influence in the community with talents for fundraising. The foundation is continuing to build its "grateful patients program."

Patients who thank health officials for excellent care often make donations, she said. When patients receive care there is a box to mark if they do not wish to receive information from the foundation. Otherwise, materials may be sent to them so they are aware of opportunities to donate. The foundation may have access to names and addresses for mailings while medical information remains confidential.

Pitchford also praised the generosity of employees who gave more than $500,000 toward the new Cancer Center.

Ramsey said Pitchford's leadership has been impressive.

"We are lucky to have Gail leading the foundation," he said. "She does a remarkable job."

Contact writer Charlotte Ferrell Smith at charlotte@dailymailwv.com or 304-348-1246.

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