The Letcher County government can begin making promised coal severance tax disbursements as soon as the Kentucky Department for Local Government receives a new priority list approved this week by the Letcher County Fiscal Court.
At its December meeting Monday night, Letcher Judge/Executive Jim Ward responded to a question about funding for the 10 volunteer fire departments that serve Letcher County by saying the money for the departments is already approved and is under “contract pending reprioritization” status. He said the county will not be able to spend from the severance funds until the new prioritization lists are submitted.
The reprioritizations are a reflection of severely lowered coal severance tax receipts after the cutback in coal production in Central Appalachia. Ward said the county’s share of severance tax money is currently down to around $3 million from a high a few years ago of nearly $6 million. He said the priority list the fiscal court will submit to the state would probably not be funded past the number 20. The list includes 14 items that are already designated as contract pending reprioritization and are locked in for funding.
The original list for 2013-14, presented last year, has been funded through the first 16 items. The contract pending reprioritization items include $200,000 for various water projects and operational improvements for the Letcher County Water and Sewer District, $20,000 each for the 10 volunteer fire departments in the county ( Jenkins, Fleming-Neon, Mayking, Colson, Whitesburg, Sandlick, Kingscreek, Letcher, Gordon, and Cumberland River), $25,000 each for the Letcher County Court Clerk’s Office and Letcher County Sheriff ’s Department, and $ 16,000 for the Cumberland Mountain Arts and Crafts Council. This funding is locked in and will be dispersed sometime in late January or early February as soon as the new priority list gets to the state and is approved, according to information Ward said he has received from the Department for Local Government.
Other projects that are likely to be funded in this year’s allocation of coal severance tax funds include $600,000 for debt service for the Letcher County Recreation Center, $250,000 for maintenance, repairs and operational expenses for Letcher County Senior Citizens Centers, $400,000 for the Letcher County Road and Sanitation Departments, $175,000 for the Parks and Recreation Department, $50,000 for the domestic violence shelter, and $100,000 for tourism, which Judge Ward and several magistrates agreed is vital to the economic future of the county. Other possible allocations past the projected 20 include an additional $25,000 each to the county court clerk and sheriff ’s offices, $25,000 for the Kingdom Come Community Center, and $25,000 for other community centers in the county. Lower on the list is a $7,000 allocation to Letcher Elementary Schools; $50,000 each for the cities of Fleming-Neon, Jenkins, and Whitesburg; operational funding for the Letcher County Rangers; and $50,000 for indigent care for Whitesburg Appalachian Regional Hospital.
Ward said it is highly unlikely funding will extend past the items listed above and might not be available for several of the projects past “tourism” at number 20.
At this week’s meeting, the court was united in its displeasure concerning the way the diminished coal severance tax receipts have been distributed, with large amounts going to non-coal producing counties for projects such as planning the rebuilding of Rupp Arena in Lexington. District Two Magistrate Terry Adams pointed out that at the time the coal severance tax system was established, tax receipts were originally earmarked for economic development for eastern Kentucky to create a more diverse economy for the inevitable time when coal mining was no longer the primary economy.
“I don’t believe the coal severance money has been used for what it was set up to do,” said Adams.
District Five Magistrate Wayne Fleming agreed, saying the money had originally been designated to help create non-coal jobs in the mountains but added that by the time it was allocated, the coal counties had been neglected by the General Assembly in funding priorities for so long, the money was so desperately needed it had gone for infrastructure and other operational matters.
“Twenty years ago that money was supposed to be used to create jobs,” said Fleming. “But when it first came in, we were just too far behind.”
Ward told the court he has spent much time in Frankfort lobbying non-coal county legislators to approve returning a larger portion of the coal severance tax money to the coal producing counties. Ward said a number of them are sympathetic and understand that low electricity rates that benefit the economy throughout the state are the result of coal mined in the coal producing counties. He added that the total amount of coal severance tax receipts for the state is slightly less than 1 percent of the entire state budget, but said that at the recent SOAR (Shaping Our Appalachian Region) summit in Pikeville, Governor Beshear said the state budget is so tight it will be impossible for the state to give back any of the coal severance tax money that went into the general fund.
In other business, the court accepted the 2014 budgets for both the Letcher County Court Clerk’s Office and the Letcher County Sheriff ’s Department. County Court Clerk Winston Meade submitted his office’s budget that calls for expenditures of $6,067,696.77 against receipts of $6,071,000, with a projected surplus of $ 3,303.23. Deputy Sheriff LaShawna Frazier presented Sheriff Danny Webb’s budget of $775,185, against receipts of $775,500, with a surplus of $315.00.
Meade also told the court that although his office is open for half a day on Saturdays, the Property Valuation Administrator’s office is closed and if vehicle owners need to conduct business with the PVA in order to renew their vehicle tags, they will not be able to do it on Saturday.
Carol Ison, director of the Cowan Community Center, invited court members and the public to attend “Christmas on the Creek” at the Cowan Community Center on Friday, December 20. The event will feature dinner, a square dance, storytelling, and a silent auction with a painting by Dorothy Jean Miles and a quilt made by the Cowan Homemakers. Dinner will begin at 5:30 p.m. Admission is $5 for adults and children under 12 get in free. Judge Ward read a proclamation designating Friday, December 20, as Cowan Community Center’s Christmas on the Creek Day and praised the center for its efforts to preserve the culture and folk art of the area including the Cowan Music School, the Cowan Creek Youth String Band, and the Cowan Homemakers.
The court also accepted bids for various material and services. The bid for fuel and oil went to J. Follace Oil, the lone bidder. There was no bid on concrete or concrete block and Action Auto was the only bidder for culverts. Blair Construction, the only bidder, received the bid for bridge lumber. No bids were placed for limestone or asphalt. County Attorney Jamie Hatton told Judge Ward the county can purchase the items that were not bid at the most convenient location and Ward said that in those instances the court usually pays slightly less than the state price. Ward also said that while prices for materials are included in the bids, they also fluctuate with the market and are not actually set by the bid amount.
The bid for refrigeration work went to Banks Refrigeration for $45 per hour. Blair Construction received the low bid for electrical work and plumbing at $34.50 per hour with Breeding Electric at $35 per hour and Greg Hale LLC at $40 per hour designated as alternate providers. The bid for HVAC went to Breeding Electric at $40 with Banks Refrigeration biding $45 per hour. Both companies will be used in order of availability. Hall Construction submitted the low bid for carpentry at $16 per hour, but specified the right to have two workers on the job. Blair Constriction bid $16 per hour and Breeding Electric bid $35 per hour. Judge Ward said most county jobs would not require more than one carpenter.
Several court members expressed their dislike of the way the bid proposals were written. Magistrate Fleming said he would like to see the advertisements for bids to be more specific and called for a more exact bid, including the number of workers.
Tourism Commission Director David Narramore reported that the 2014 schedule of events has gone to the printer and said he will make calls later this week to finalize dates. Anyone with corrections should contacted him at email@example.com or call 606-633-5951.
The Tourism Commission will finalize a plan influenced by information presented at the SOAR meeting to promote tourism in the region, and present it at the January 20 fiscal court meeting. Narramore told the court that the Tourism Commission has saved more than $10,000 in printing and media costs this year and asked court members to think of ways to attract a large hotel to the county. Several members mentioned the property near the Raven Rock Golf Course in Jenkins, which was originally planned for use as a shopping center but is not in use. Work at the site has been idle for more than a year.
The court voted unanimously to name Straight Row at Dunham in honor of PFC James Curtis Mullins, U.S. Army, missing in action, killed in action, Korean War. Mullins enlisted at the age of 17 and was killed in 1950 after a month in Korea. His body was not recovered for 62 years. The court also voted unanimously to dedicate Elkhorn Avenue in Jenkins in honor of Specialist 5 Bobby G. Mullins, U.S. Army, Vietnam.
In other court business:
• The court passed the second reading of an ordinance that requires hotel and motel taxes in the county to be paid on a monthly basis.
• The court authorized a waiver of liability for Whitesburg Appalachian Regional Hospital for two AED defibrillator devices the hospital donated to the Letcher County Recreation Center. All rec center personnel will be trained in the use of the defibrillators.