Whitesburg KY

City will borrow to pay debt to water company

Whitesburg Mayor James Wiley Craft said Veolia Water Company and the city are both responsible for the city being $300,000 in debt to Veolia, which manages the city’s water and sewer systems.

Veolia district manager John Stallard told the council last week that because neither Veolia nor the city had adjusted its respective budget to cover additional costs in chemicals, electrical power, and lab fees, the city owes the company approximately $300,000 for the 2007-08 fiscal year. City Clerk Garnett Sexton said the city will owe Veolia at least another $250,000 for 2008-09 fiscal year.

Mayor Craft said that while he is not happy with Veolia for not keeping the city informed about the escalating costs, there is no doubt that the city does owe the money. Craft told Stallard there is equal blame on both sides and cautioned him when he referred to the problem as belonging to the council and blaming the problem on a contract written 10 years ago.

“Let’s say we, not you all,” said Craft. “Don’t get into that. Don’t put the blame on the council. It’s your failure, too. I don’t see any way around paying it. We owe it.”

Craft told the council the city will look for the best interest rate to borrow the money. He said he would place the item on the agenda for the council’s August meeting, which would give him and City Clerk Sexton time to find the most favorable terms for a loan.

Whitesburg Fire Chief Gary Mullins, who served on the city council when the city agreed to take over paying for chemicals, electrical power, and lab fees from Veolia, questioned Stallard sharply about how the company had allowed the city to fall so far behind and was told that Veolia had submitted each expense item in its reports. However, City Clerk Sexton said there were no specific requests made in the monthly budget reports for the overages. She also said they had just been part of the monthly report, in which any expenditure over $2,000 was supposed to be brought to the council’s attention.

When Craft said he saw a number of items over $2,000 in the report Veolia had submitted to the council, Manager Todd Adams said that many of the items were for multiple expenses on one project and not for a single item. Adams, who recently replaced Jeff Kilgore as local manager, said he thought the budget items may have been left unreported for that reason.

“Gary (Mullins) was on the council when the agreement was made,” said Craft. “These expenses over $2,000 were supposed to be referred to the council for approval. You haven’t done that.”

Stallard said Veolia would provide itemized reports for each expenditure and told the council he had been under the impression the items had been referred for approval. Council member Perry Fowler said that regardless of how many items were covered, they each were listed on the reports as a single one.

In other business, Fowler read the first reading of an ordinance he requested earlier this month to prohibit motorized vehicles on the city’s new walking track from Highway 15 in West Whitesburg to the new James Bates Pedestrian Bridge downtown. It prohibits all motorized vehicles from being on the track, with the exception of motorized wheelchairs, emergency vehicles, and city maintenance vehicles. Offenders will face fines up to $500, ten days in jail, and forfeiture of the offending vehicle. Mayor Craft said the vehicles would be seized and impounded until they could be sold at auction by the city, with the proceeds going toward maintenance of the walking track. Because this was a first reading no action was taken.

Mayor Craft told the council that as soon as the remaining portion of the track is marked off, it will be included into a sub-section of the ordinance as well.

“This is a rather draconian measure,” said Craft. “But until we can send a message that people are not to destroy what we have put together in this city, it will take a draconian measure.”

Council member Robin Watko agreed with Craft and said the motion was needed to protect city property. Craft, who has been frustrated and angered by recent acts of vandalism on city property, said he would do everything in his power to end the vandalism and to protect the growing number of people who use the track for exercise and family outings.

“I reside in that area,” said Craft. “It is very pleasurable to see people, moms, dads, and children, walking on that track. I will not see them endangered in any way.”

The council also addressed a request from the family of the late Opal Strange for payment from the city for repairs caused by a sewer back-up from a clogged manhole that came into her basement. The council heard the letter requesting payment at the regular meeting and Mayor Craft had promised to see if Mrs. Strange’s property had been smoke tested to determine if her drains were running into the city’s sewer system, which is a violation of a city ordinance.

He said that since then, it had been determined that the drains were running into the city’s sewers, and that Mrs. Strange had been notified of the smoke test results well before the incident and asked to disconnect the drains from the city sewer system. The drain had not been disconnected, which resulted in the back-up. The council voted not to pay for damages by a margin of three to one, with John Williams casting the lone no vote. Council members Bates and Freda McFall did not attend the special meeting.

In other business at its July meeting:

• Mayor Craft presented retired Police Chief Scott Adams with a retired officers’ badge to commemorate his service to the city. Craft praised Adams for his work for the city and his dedication to the young people of Whitesburg.

• Jim Wade of Nesbitt Engineering told the council the pedestrian bridge is almost completely finished and soon will be ready for a dedication ceremony. Craft added that he has spoken with Mountain Enterprise about paving the entryway so that it will meet American Disabilities Act specifications for accessibility. He added that he directed them to go ahead and pave both city parking lots and the streets around the courthouse. Craft said that Letcher County Judge/Executive Jim Ward had agreed the county will share the expense for paving around the courthouse.

In a motion introduced by Fowler, the new pedestrian bridge was named in honor of long time council member Jimmy Bates, who has long advocated for the bridge and is a former State Commander of the Veterans of Foreign Wars and is active in statewide veterans’ affairs.

• Amanda Hammonds, promotional coordinator for Food World, invited the city to participate in the chain’s Kids’ Festival, to celebrate the beginning of the new school year. Hammonds said the festival will run through the month of August but that a carnival with inflatable slides and other attractions will be held August 8 at Food World in Whitesburg. There will be prizes and games, all for children. She asked the city for use of a fire truck and the dunking booth. The council agreed and Mayor Craft said he will have the dunking booth taken to the store site.

• R.F. Kiser of the Letcher County Airport Board reported progress on an airport for the county and asked the city to allow a coal company to build a road to the site in exchange for removing coal on property they own as well as land the city has agreed to give to the board. Mayor Craft suggested the council agree but only subject to two amendments. One, the land will revert to the city if it ceases being used as an airport, and the city’s property will not be destroyed by the coal company. Craft also cautioned Kiser and the airport board to proceed with caution when dealing with coal companies, saying they could run across a rogue operator who will sign an agreement and then file for bankruptcy. The council voted to allow the board to proceed as long as the two amendments were honored.

• David Fields of WMMT-FM and Appalshop told the council the radio station has received a grant to use for an emergency notification system. He said the station and Appalshop will work with the county and their new One Call system to make certain everyone is notified of an emergency.

• The council conducted the second reading of the city’s property tax assessment, which remains unchanged, as Craft said from “when memory runneth not to the contrary,” and voted unanimously to set it at the current rate of $.34 per $100.

• The council conducted the second reading and voted to accept an ordinance setting new water rates. As reported in an earlier edition of The Mountain Eagle, those homes in the city using less than 5,000 gallons per month will see no increase. Rates will rise to $6.00 per thousand for the next 1,000 gallons and will go to $9.56 for all after that. County customers who buy water from the city will see rates after 5,000 gallons raise to $7.50 and $14.56 per 1,000 gallons respectively.

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