A divided Letcher County Fiscal Court voted at its March meeting to explore the possibility of selling what has become the controversial industrial park site (the old South East Coal tipple) at Isom, which is currently occupied by Process Systems and under lease to Process Systems owner Doug Sizemore.
In the four-to-two vote, Fifth District Magistrate Wayne Fleming and Second District Magistrate Terry Adams voted not to sell the site. The vote was the result of a motion by Fourth District Magistrate Keith Adams who said the site had been a bone of contention between the court and local residents and would be more beneficial overall if it was in private hands. Adams’s motion came in the midst of a contentious discussion over the restructure of the current lease with Sizemore that was originally set to allow him to sublease the property to Refuel Carbon to install a wood pellet processing plant.
The court proceeded with the vote even though County Attorney Jamie Hatton reminded it that Sizemore still has six years on his current lease, whether it is restructured or not, and anyone buying the site would be constrained from doing anything with the property until the lease expires. Hatton said it is unlikely that the county will find a buyer willing to purchase the site under those conditions and also pointed out that the site is currently producing income in the amount of $1,000 a month under the lease agreement.
Terry Adams said he has no wish to see the court sell the property, which he said is a prime site for business or industry. He added that he had opposed allowing Refuel Carbon to locate there because he felt it would have a negative impact on the Isom residents who live near the plant. Adams threw a previous accusation back that several court members had made against him and Fleming at the original meeting, when they were accused of being against bringing new jobs into the county. At that meeting both men had asked that the court take the time to more carefully examine Refuel Carbon’s proposal and learn more about the company. The court voted four to two, with Adams and Fleming voting no, at the called meeting to allow the lease to be restructured. Adams said the site is prime for industry and that selling the park would have a negative impact on developing jobs in the county.
“I guess if you vote to sell, you’re voting against jobs,” said Adams.
Adams’s comment drew angry responses from some court members and the vote to begin to explore selling of the property saw Terry Adams and Fleming vote no, and Judge/Executive Jim Ward, Third District Magistrate Codell Gibson, First District Magistrate Bobby Howard, and Keith Adams vote yes. Gibson responded angrily to charges that he was against bringing jobs to the county, but Fleming reminded him that he had said the same thing about him and Terry Adams when they had voted against the sublease.
Several Isom residents spoke against allowing the property to be used by Refuel Carbon for a pellet plant. One man asked the court if it had heard anything at all from the company since Magistrate Fleming had revealed a number of discrepancies in the claims representatives of Refuel Carbon had made at the original meeting, including the location of the company and the relative stability of the business. Judge Ward replied no, and added that he had no further contact with Refuel Carbon.
Legina Adams, who is a candidate for Second District Magistrate in the upcoming primary election, said she lives near the site and asked the court to form a commission with at least one resident of the area to be impacted, but that was voted down four to two as well, with Terry Adams and Fleming voting to form the commission. She said that the people who live nearby had not been notified about the called meeting, where the court voted with almost no information on Refuel Carbon to allow the release to be restructured. Adams said she thought it would be beneficial if, in the future, the court would have two meetings before making decisions that would have that kind of impact so people who have an interest in the outcome could be involved in the process. Terry Adams made a motion that a committee be formed with Judge Ward, County Attorney Hatton, himself, Sizemore, and one citizen resident from Isom to discuss the matter, but the court voted it down. Adams and Fleming voted to form the committee and Ward, Keith Adams, Codell Gibson and Bobby Howard voted no.
In other business, the court voted to accept a price hike in tipping fees for hauling and dumping Letcher County’s trash by WATCO LLC, the Somerset waste management company with which the county does its dumping business. Judge Ward told the court the year-long agreement the Letcher County Sanitation Department had with WATCO had recently expired and he had been notifi ed that the company intended to raise the rate to $45.15 per ton from $42.16. Ward said he had negotiated the price down to $44.60, but added that the representative of WATCO he spoke with said the company was not making a profit hauling Letcher County’s garbage and would not mind if it switched carriers. Ward asked the court to go ahead and approve the asking price for the interim while he explores other option including changing carriers, using another landfill, or contracting with private truckers to haul the county’s trash. Ward told the court it only charges the cities in Letcher County that use the WATCO service through the county $45 per ton, but said he did not want to raise their rates until he can see if there are less expensive options for disposing of the county’s garbage.
The court also voted to approve a reduced Priority List to send to the Kentucky General Assembly for coal severance tax receipts for Fiscal Year 2014-2015. Judge Ward cautioned the court that Letcher County’s expected allotment is down from over $3 million to around $1.3 million, and said the outlook for increasing it is not good. Ward said he is doing everything he can to help increase the amount of severance taxes that will come to Letcher County and other eastern Kentucky counties, including working with the Judge/ Executive of Mercer County to get roads to the Harrodsburg Kentucky Utility (KU) generating plant placed back on the list of Kentucky coal roads. Ward said KU has just signed a contract with a Letcher County coal company to provide coal to the Harrodsburg facility, but the situation with the coal road designation is holding things up.
Ward told the court the entire allotment for eastern Kentucky from coal severance receipts is $8 million and of that, $5 million is already locked into line items that cannot be changed, which only leaves a pot of $3 million for other uses for all the coal-producing counties. He said the situation is desperate and that every eastern Kentucky legislator should take part in deliberations on the coal severance funds.
In the priority list that was approved at the Monday meeting, the court has asked for $650,000 per year for debt service on the Letcher County Recreation Center and $625,000 each year for county agencies, including the County Road Department, Sanitation Department, Senior Citizens Centers, Parks and Recreation, Tourism, maintenance and operational improvements, and equipment. There was also an allotment of $75,000 per year for volunteer fire departments in the county and $50,000 for Letcher County Cares, the Letcher County domestic violence shelter. The allotment to the shelter was not on the original list, but Magistrate Fleming asked that it be included, citing the good work the shelter does and reminding the court that in the hard economic times the county is currently experiencing, domestic violence is likely to increase.
The court had heard an earlier plea from Debbie Hogg, a board member at the shelter, to the effect that the court continue to fund it. Hogg said that due to confidentiality agreements, it is hard for the shelter to fundraise through many traditional means and that donations and help from the court are the main way the center is funded. Hogg told the court that the shelter, Letcher County Cares, is one of three transitional centers in the eastern part of the state, where families can come out of emergency shelters and spend up to two years in transition. This allows the women and children to recover and to helps the mothers find ways to broaden their education and employment opportunities. Hogg said that at present the shelter serves seven families including 11 children and has helped over 92 families since it was opened to transition away from a life of brutal domestic abuse to a place of safety where they can get their lives in order. She said a number of the women at the shelter have studied at the Whitesburg campus of Southeast Kentucky Community and Technical College and some have received degrees in nursing or other medical fields as well as other programs offered at the college. A number of the women have also received GEDs.
Hogg said it costs the center $8,000 a year just for insurance, due to the nature of the work it does, and Magistrate Fleming suggested the court try to help with that by bringing the center onto a KACO policy. KACO is the insurance provider for Letcher County and many other Kentucky counties and is able to offer better rates for government agencies.
The court also discussed the disposition of the Boone Fork Senior Citizens Center. Fleming- Neon Mayor Susie Polis told the court that if it plans to demolish the building and it wants to dispose of the lot, the City of Fleming- Neon would like to obtain it to be used as the site for the Tim Hall Memorial Park. However, Judge Ward said that although the building is unsafe and will have to be demolished, a number of the seniors at the center have said they would like to keep the site. In a later discussion, the court voted unanimously to allow Judge Ward to advertise for proposals for the demolition of the Boone Fork center.
Letcher County Economic Development Coordinator Joe DePriest told the court that since the economic downturn began in 2007, the occupancy at the Gateway Industrial Park in Jenkins has plummeted dramatically, to 65 jobs at present. DePriest said part of the reason lies in the way the charter for the park is structured. At present the park is limited to accepting manufacturing, distribution, or service industries, and commercial or residential business falls out of the guidelines. However, DePriest said he is willing to make any proposal if it will help the economic development situation.
DePriest also announced that there will be a public meeting on March 27 at 6 p.m. at Pine Mountain Grill to discuss possibilities and begin planning to participate in the Promise Zone project. The public is invited to participate in planning.
Tourism Commission Chairman David Narramore reported that Whitesburg Appalachian Regional Hospital has agreed to donate space for a mural that will be 14 feet in length. Kentucky Heritage Artist Doug Adams has been commissioned to do the work and Adams told the court he intends to use student volunteers to help. Narramore added that the mural will portray Letcher County Revolutionary War patriot Stephen Caudill’s flour and sawmill, that was originally located in the vicinity of West Whitesburg Elementary School. Narramore praised Whitesburg ARH for its generosity and vision.
Jerry Collins of Millstone, told the court he had been misquoted in The Mountain Eagle concerning comments he made about a pond at Millstone, particularly in his comparison of the pond to Jenkins Lake.
Video and audio recordings of the meeting, including a broadcast aired by the Letcher County Government Channel, shows that Collins was quoted correctly at the January 17 fiscal court meeting. Collins also compared the pond to the Buffalo Creek disaster in West Virginia, and said the believes the property containing it was deeded to the county in 1972.
“That pond at Millstone, it’s deadly. It’s 37 feet deep and a quarter mile long and contains nearly twice the volume of Jenkins Lake,” Collins said at the Jan. 17 meeting. “It’s a disaster waiting to happen. I believe the county owns that property.”