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A bill moving through the West Virginia Legislature is intended to make it easier for communities to help residents lead healthy lifestyles.
Senate Bill 628, Creating Healthy Children and Healthy Communities Act, compels government entities and agencies at the local level to work together and investigate ways the community can encourage physical activity among residents, especially children. The Division of Highways and Bureau for Public Health also would be involved.
"After the public entities look at the possibilities, they will report back to the Legislature the feasibility of doing some of these things and how they'll be accomplished," committee counsel Rita Pauley said.
Senate Minority Leader Mike Hall, R-Putnam, pointed out many school buildings stand empty in the evenings and on weekends and would make good places for fitness classes and sports leagues. He worried about liability costs, however.
"It's one thing to say these buildings can be used, here's the cost, the liability, the staffing," he said. "It's a lot of cost here."
The bill does include consideration for things like liability and insurance costs. Those are two of the elements local government entities will be tasked with investigating. But Sen. Ron Stollings, D-Boone, said he doesn't feel comfortable with the liability provisions in the bill and thinks it's something the Legislature will be asked to reconsider in future sessions.
"I do note and worry when these buildings are not open frequently, the first answer is due to liability concerns," Stollings said. "We don't really deal with liability or limit liability in this. We look at it specifically. I think that's something we'll come back in one or two years and have to address. I really think if it wasn't for what seemingly out in the real world is a litigious society we live in, we wouldn't be meeting here. We'd be using these after hours."
Stollings suggested people using school buildings after hours sign a waiver, releasing the school or any other agency from responsibility for any injuries that could occur.
Sen. Larry Edgell, D-Wetzel, said he's aware of sports leagues for kids operating in his area that are housed in but not part of local schools.
"Communities and leagues are finding ways to make this work," Pauley said.
Pauley said she's talked with communities that already have similar programs in place about how they fund them.
"Either through grants or private funding," she said. "We left those funding options open for them to figure out what works best for their communities."
She pointed out the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention offer financial resources to communities who want to get involved.
"Some things can be done right now, some things they may need assistance with," she said.
Sen. John Unger, D-Berkeley, chairs the committee. He said although many communities already have physical activity programs in place, they're not under the cover of law.
"Even though they've been doing these public-private partnerships . . . they really don't have the cover of the law to cover what they're doing," Unger said. "This gives them the authority and flexibility to do this and permission to do this."
The bill gives other communities the opportunity to point to state code and find they've been authorized by the Legislature to offer programs.
"I think it is sad these buildings aren't available at night," Hall said, adding the bill "opens a discussion, and I'm comfortable with that."