Shortly after Sheriff Danny Webb took office in 2002, he borrowed money and started buying brand new police cars.
He bought more on a regular cycle, keeping the best old cars, selling the clunkers and buying brand new ones. But with the county tax base shrinking and coal severance tax money all but gone, he’s far behind schedule for new cars, and there’s no money left to buy. Instead, he’s kept the old cars on the road as long as possible, and supplemented the fleet with a couple of federal surplus cars — Crown Victoria Police Interceptors, which Ford stopped manufacturing in 2011, the same year the department’s newest Dodge Chargers were made.
Likewise, the number of deputies is down and those that remain no longer have hazardous duty retirement like they used to.
“We pay all our expenses off the tax base, and you can’t hire extra deputies because you don’t have any money,” Webb said.
At Gordon Volunteer Fire Department, the firefighters have opened a go-cart track to raise money for the electric bill and diesel fuel, and Sandlick Fire Department has restarted Bingo.
Letcher Fire and Rescue gave up its newest ambulances and went back to using the spares it had intended to retire after Medicare and Medicaid reduced the amount of reimbursements, and the type of runs they would pay for. Letcher personnel director Gary Rogers said his department had only a handful of runs last week and has had to cut back crews as well as equipment. Neon Fire and Rescue has also cut back the number of crews working each day.
Far from improving, Rogers said Medicare reimbursements are expected to be cut another 26 percent in September, and the only money the ambulance services get from the county is $2,000 a month approved during the Ruben Watts administration for an emergency medical technician/ dispatcher.
“We’ve cut back as far as we can cut back,” he said.
Fire departments still get $3,000 a year for vehicle insurance, and the county pays for insurance for search and rescue vehicles, but the $20,000 a year the county used to provide emergency services from coal severance tax money dried up when the coal market went belly up.
What county government intends to do about the lack of money for emergency responders is one of 20 topics The Mountain Eagle explored in a survey mailed to the 32 candidates who have filed to run for county judge/executive and magistrate in Letcher County this year.
Of the 32 contacted, 12 returned the surveys.
The survey also covered zoning law, which some residents have mentioned as a way to improve the county by requiring certain building standards and by segregating heavy industry from homes. While some have advocated for such laws, there has traditionally been strong opposition in from a small group of citizens and from the fiscal court. No ordinance has made it before the court in years, and none has ever passed. The City of Whitesburg has a comprehensive zoning ordinance, and there is a basic ordinance inside the City of Jenkins. There are no restrictions outside the city limits.
The questions also covered the condition of roads and bridges.
At least four bridges were severely damaged in flooding during the winter. Bridges at Holbrook Town and Perkins Branch are impassible, and the county has built temporary detours around them. The Perkins Branch Bridge collapsed completely.
Candidates’ answers on the subjects of emergency services, roads and bridges, zoning are below.
QUESTION: Should Letcher County have at least a minimal zoning plan?
COUNTY JUDGE/EXECUTIVE CANDIDATES
Terry Adams (R) —
(This candidate marked out the questions related to a zoning plan and did not answer.)
Mica Smith Johnston (R) — (This candidate filled in “These are not yes or no questions” in the space provided for yes or no answers.) There is zoning inside the city limits. I do not think it will work for the rest of the county.
Jack Banks (R) — Yes. A minimal zoning plan would help eliminate unsafe building practices and also prevent borderline encroachment between neighbors.
Curt King (D) — Yes, in light of hiring an economic development coordinator, we need to have a zoning plan that allows our county to meet (its) economic goals. This should be developed with the economic development coordinator to align with the economic development plan for the entire county.
Don McCall (D) — No. I’m not in favor of countywide zoning. My understanding of zoning is that landowners are restricted as to what they may or may not do with their own property. I think it’s an issue for individual cities to determine.
Sherry Sexton (D) — No, because it would add another cost to our citizens every time they needed to add a room or build a barn or storage unit. We have to pay enough already.
Codell Gibson (D) — No.
Emory “Fudge” Mullins (D) — Yes. Keep a clean county. The county would be safer for children.
Roger Back (D) — (This candidate did not answer the question.)
Melody Coots (D) — No. (It) is already predetermined in its geographical layout of the county. Has been criticized on many levels such as social, economic and environmental.
Robert “Sarge” Howard (R) — Yes. It would be good to have a minimal zoning plan to help keep the county looking better and cleaner, and would regulate where and what type of business or structures would be going up in certain areas. I would provide for a more uniform look to our area.
Johnathan Belcher (D) — Yes. To prepare for economic growth, a plan should be established that can show potential investors where is ready and where is not ready for growth and expansion, while at the same time outlining what still needs to be done.
QUESTION: Are the roads and bridges in Letcher County satisfactory?
Terry Adams (R) — No. County roads and bridges are being neglected because of wasteful spending in the past. The county road department is currently well funded by our share of the state gas tax, but that funding is being used to fund other departments in our county, thus depleting the road department fund causing unsatisfactory conditions and employee layoffs.
Mica Smith Johnston (R) — (This candidate filled in “These are not yes or no questions” in the space provided for yes or no answers.) The current roads and bridges are in horrible shape and in need of major repairs. The bridge at Perkins Branch is just one example. There is money specifically for this purpose. The money is spent and the roads are still in horrible shape.
Jack Banks (R) — No. There is some work being done on bridges as of now (a few). All of our bridges should be examined for safety, and some of the roads (county) in my district need attention right away.
Curt King (D) — I believe that the state of our roads and bridges are fair, however improvements to these roads in the future would be funded by the oil and gas fee.
Don McCall (D) — No. Several bridges need repairing or replacing. A lot of roads are in bad shape. The current fiscal court is working hard to acquire funding to fix our roads and bridges. That’s what I would promise — to work hard.
Sherry Sexton (D) — No. Our roads need a lot of work, especially in outlying areas. Erosion caused by recent flooding is a major concern right now. We need to develop a prioritized list of needs and address them as funds become available.
Codell Gibson (D) — No.
Emory “Fudge” Mullins (D) — Yes. Our roads and bridges are for the most part in good shape. Some do need repairs.
Roger Back (D) — No. Our roads are in decent shape, however many areas have become weathered and (are) getting rough. I’m afraid we will not have funds to maintain what we have and they will get worse.
Melody Coots (D) — No, the roads and bridges are showing their age, wear and tear, although we have ongoing road improvement projects, our infrastructure needs to be updated to accommodate our economic development and our tourism. Unfortunately, with the budget and limited funds, the county is limited to maintenance and repairs of what we have.
Robert “Sarge” Howard (R) — No. Many of the county’s roads and bridges are in extremely poor condition and need immediate attention. We need to petition Frankfort for emergency funds to attend to the most seriously damaged roads/bridges. We need to require the governor to come and observe firsthand the terrible condition of our roads and bridges.
Johnathan Belcher (D) — No. As in other aspects of our county departments, the road crew is stretched to a skeleton crew, fueled by depleted resources. Immediate relief isn’t in sight, but should be prioritized alongside our dilapidated EMS and other similar programs.
QUESTION: Should the fiscal court provide more funding to emergency services such as the sheriff ’s department, county rangers, fire departments, ambulance services and search and rescue?
Terry Adams (R) — Yes. We should do everything possible to fund our emergency services in Letcher County.
Mica Smith Johnston (R) — (This candidate filled in “These are not yes or no questions” in the space provided for yes or no answers.) We need these services. Money should be allotted for the betterment of these services for our people. When we have a balanced budget we can explore these options.
Jack Banks (R) — Yes. All these services are basic services provided to our community. They are a must to provide us with a safe and secure environment for us, and our children and grandchildren. We have to find funding for these services.
Curt King (D) — Yes, I believe that we need to really think how to get more funding to each of these services. Each of these is going to require a different approach based on the type of service. For example, the National Rural Health Association just brought forward a policy suggesting that there needs to be research on how to best restructure funding for ambulance services so that we know they have the money to do the important work they need to. We need to look into different things like that and how we can be part of bigger solutions.
Don McCall (D) — Yes, if additional funding becomes available.
Sherry Sexton (D) — Yes, the sheriff ’s department will need two officers that deal with school-related issues. Currently they have one, but with the recent threats at our school, an increased police presence is needed. Fire department and emergency services need to be able to update equipment as needed and attend trainings. County rangers will become increasingly important as tourism increases.
Codell Gibson (D) — Yes. I think the sheriff ’s department, if run effective, can and should take care of itself. The rangers help control our parks and need to be maintained. The fire department and search and rescue should be given help if needed.
Emory “Fudge” Mullins (D) — Yes. I’m sure (the county) could do more for the county rangers and search and rescue.
Roger Back (D) — I would like to provide more funding when it is possible. I believe the county budget will only get tighter, and will not allow more funding without an increase in revenue.
Melody Coots (D) — Yes, emergency services should always be equipped with the latest training and supplies needed to help a person in need of their services. Each department should be evaluated for the need for additional funds, although these offices are always in need of funds, one may demonstrate a higher need than the other. In the future, I would like to see one representative from each of departments come to the fiscal court meeting with an update report on their activities and needs. I would also like to have the sheriff ’s department extended for the supervision of the county’s needs and to get response time to better serve the county. Hire more deputies at the sheriff ’s department. Have our own dispatching 24/7. Have special training for all first responders with GPS location in all vehicles for the purpose of tracking the workers and getting them to the victims in an emergency situation in a timely manner. Body cameras for first responders to record his or her actions during a call to a scene.
Robert “Sarge” Howard (R) — Yes. It would be very beneficial to the needs of this county if we could expand our aid to emergency services such as ambulance and fire. We should look deep into our funds to try to provide several outpost stations for ambulance response as there are many times it takes far too long for services to reach many parts of the county. Having available posts in each district would help to eliminate some of that crucial wait time.
Johnathan Belcher (D) — (This candidate referred back to a previous question for this answer. That answer is printed here.) As in other aspects of our county departments, the road crew is stretched to a skeleton crew fueled by depleted resources. Immediate relief isn’t in sight, but should be prioritized alongside our dilapidated EMS and other similar programs.