Candidates for Letcher County offices seem to have mostly come to terms with the decline of the coal industry, and say the county has to move on to a new economy.
The Mountain Eagle sent surveys to all 32 candidates for judge/executive and magistrate asking their positions on the economy and other issues facing Letcher County.
Of the 12 who returned surveys, 10 said they don’t believe coal will ever return as the dominant industry in Letcher County, though some still hold out hope that it will. Of the two candidates for judge/executive who returned the surveys, Mica Johnston did not answer yes or no, but indicated “more options” are needed, and Terry Adams marked out the questions and did not answer.
For the fourth quarter of 2017, Letcher County had 119 coal industry jobs, down from 383 four years before, but up from 51 a year before.
Coal severance tax money is also down drastically indicating a decline in production that has continued despite a slight rise in employment. The county received $40,562 for the last quarter of 2017, down from $98,624 in the third quarter, and down from $299,759 in the last quarter of 2013, according to figures from the county finance office.
In the second quarter of 2010, the high water mark for coal severance tax, Letcher County received $532,065.
While pressure from natural gas has caused a drop in demand for coal, the amount of mineral severance tax, which comes mostly from gas, has also fallen drastically.
Mineral severance tax for Letcher County in the fourth quarter of 2017 was $180,000, down from a high of $747,253 in the last quarter of 2008.
QUESTION: Will coal return as the dominant industry here?
Terry Adams (R) — (This candidate marked out the questions related to coal 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.) I will forever be proud to be a coal miner’s daughter, but our children need more options to be able to stay and thrive here. MAGISTRATE CANDIDATES District 1: Jack Banks (R) — Coal hopefully will make some comeback in the future, but probably never like it was at its peak. Our current president has reversed some of the sanctions against coal. That should help the coal communities some.
Curt King (D) — No. I believe that even if coal returns, most of the jobs have been replaced by high-powered machinery. So, while we may be producing large amounts of coal, it will not create as many jobs as it once did.
Don McCall (D) — No. The closing of coal-fired plants and big power companies shying away from coal has doomed the coal industry.
Sherry Sexton (D) — No. Because of the environmental impact of coal, I don’t think it will ever have the presence it had in the past. We have to look ahead to come up with good paying jobs to replace coal.
Codell Gibson (D) — No. I think no, but it could change. No one can tell the future.
Emory “Fudge” Mullins (D) — No. There will always be a need for coal, but not in great demand.
Roger Back (D) — No. I was a coal miner underground for 20 years and I do not believe coal will be the dominant industry in this region again. I would support any new mining, but we can’t count on it for our area.
Melody Coots (D) — No, the recoverable coal that is in Letcher County cannot be mined and sold at competitive prices in today’s coal market.
Robert “Sarge” Howard (R) — No. In reality, the coal industry may improve some in the future but will not be the dominant industry that it once was. Environmental concerns/groups have effectively changed the direction of energy consumption and sources to where a strong coal comeback is unlikely. Our focus needs to shift to other forms of industry coming into the region.
Johnathan Belcher (D) — No. Coal has always been a boom-bust industry. Not diversifying our economy has proven to be disastrous. If coal comes back, that would be great, I just don’t want to see all of the county’s eggs in one basket.