Waste Watch Explores Decisions To Spend More Than A Million Dollars On Eastern Panhandle Farmers Market

Taylor's Farm Market in Berkeley County offers a wide variety of local, West Virginia products. A long-time farm family is leasing the market from the state Department of Agriculture, paying $48,000 a year. But before it was turned over to private management, the department itself ran the facility.

And it was a financial disaster.

A recent audit showed the then Inwood Farmers Market lost $100,000 a year for six straight years. In the midst of that time period, agriculture officials decided to double down on their investment.

In 2011, the market was given $662,000 in federal stimulus money to buy refrigeration upgrades. This massive cooler, set at 34 degrees, can store apples for months. However, auditors say the department didn't do its homework.

"We found no evidence that the former administration had considered the losses that were produced at the Inwood Farmers Market in the previous years prior to making the commitment," Kristina Taylor, Senior Auditor with the West Virginia Legislative Auditor's Office. "We also found no evidence that they had performed a cost-to-benefit ratio to see whether or not it would be worth the money to spend it on the units."

Agriculture Commissioner Walt Helmick asked for the audit when he took office. Although the decision to spend the money was made by the previous administration, Helmick says he wants to get the state out of the farmers market business.

"We do not want to be involved in any operation of farmers markets around West Virginia where we own the market," Helmick said. "We look at it with a contribution and some oversight, significant oversight, but we don't want ownership of it. We think that is a private issue and should be handled by private people."

Bob Taylor says he has made extensive renovations to the market and that business has been better than expected since it opened in late May. He also says the fact that the cold storage is here, that the state invested in those refrigeration units, was a major factor in his decision to invest in this market and keep it open for the community.

"You can get your fresh vegetables, fruit, whatevers in season is here," Jane Grant of Bunker Hill said. "And before there was much of a variety here at all, so this is a real plus for our community."

Helmick says even though the more than $600,000 project was approved by the state departments of agriculture and energy when it was proposed, he's put policies and controls in place to more closely scrutinize how public money is spent in the future.

"It gives us a reason to look at other operations, and in all honesty we have some other operations that we're not happy with," Helmick said. "And we're gonna do some changing there and a lot of it came about because of our eyes being opened at Inwood."

With the current cost of the Taylor's lease, if the farmers market is successufl and they stay in business, the state will recoup its $662,000 investment in the cold storage units in about 13 1/2 years.

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