Members of the Letcher Fiscal Court disagree over how the county government should allocate funds from a Fiscal Year 2016-17 operating budget that will be $2.7 million less than its current budget, which expires June 30.
Several debates occurred during a recent budget workshop meeting in which the fiscal court’s five magistrates and Judge/Executive Jim Ward began choosing where next year’s funding for county government should be placed in the budget. The meeting marked the “first reading” of the new budget proposed by Ward. Changes can only be made to the document submitted by Ward until the second, or “final,” reading of the budget, which must be approved by the state and passed into local law by July 1.
District Five Magistrate Wayne Fleming told Ward there were a few items he wanted to address and asked why the sanitation budget had increased so much. In the proposed budget, the “sanitation labor” line item stands at $509,000, up from $400,000 last year, and “landfill general operations and management” at $660,000, up from $219,000 last year.
Letcher County Treasurer Philip Hampton told Fleming that the Lo- cal Government Economic Assistance Fund has always contributed to the county’s solid waste operation but that there is no money in LGEA to spare this year, making the sanitation department’s costs go up on paper. He said the recommended way to figure the next budget by the state is to total the first nine months’ expenditures, divide that by nine and multiply by 12. The subtotal for sanitation is $1,251,260.
Fleming also said that no new sanitation workers have been hired and that the increase in sanitation fees that had been passed earlier were supposed to address some of the deficits. Hampton answered that because sanitation is billed quarterly, the increased fees are just now starting to show up.
The court voted unanimously to approve Fleming’s recommendation that $1,000 removed from the Road and Bridge Maintenance Fund for the cities of Jenkins, Whitesburg, and Fleming Neon be put back in the budget. He said it would serve as an emergency fund and that many city roads connect with county roads.
Fiscal Officer Doris Jean Frazier asked where the $1,000 would come from and Fleming said he would leave that up to Frazier and Hampton.
Fleming also asked about cuts in the tourism budget. Ward said revenue from the hotel tax that funds tourism has been down this year. Fleming said that with the losses of coal revenue in the county, at least jobs can still be created through tourism and asked for an increase from $16,000 to $25,000 in that fund.
“$25,000 is not much if you can create jobs,” said Fleming, adding that the surrounding counties all put more money into developing tourism than Letcher Count and realize more revenue as well. District Two Magistrate Terry Adams agreed, saying “Tourism is critical.”
Fleming said the county will get $1.2 million in coal severance funds and believes the money could come out of that. Ward said that he agrees that tourism is important, but asked the magistrates to remember that a budget is nothing but a projection and added that he does not believe the coal severance appropriation will be that much.
“If there’s no money, it won’t matter,” said Ward.
Fleming said that Harlan and Perry counties are making a lot of money from tourism and that even Knott County is doing better than Letcher County. He noted that every surrounding county has a “zip line” attraction. (Zip lines are popular adventure tourism attractions that consist of a pulley suspended on a cable mounted on a slope.) Fleming moved that the tourism budget be increased to $25,000, saying Letcher County can’t keep being left behind. The vote was four to two, with Fleming, Adams, District One Magistrate Bobby Howard, and District Three Magistrate Woody Holbrook voting yes with District Four Magistrate Keith Adams and Ward voting no.
Frazier, the finance officer, reminded the court that if the county presents an unbalanced budget to Frankfort it will be refused. She said that if the court increases one project it has to take money from another to balance the budget. Ward then asked Fleming where to take the money from and Fleming replied that Ward and Hampton, the treasurer, should know more about where to take the money. Ward said he had already cut the Letcher County Recreation Center’s expense budget from $90,000 to $75,000 and added that the power bill for the rec center and other county buildings could go up this year as well.
Fleming also asked that some funding be allocated to the Domestic Violence Center in Whitesburg and the Parks and Recreation Department. He asked to raise Parks and Recreation from $5,000 to $35,000 and to fund domestic violence to $50,000.
Ward said the previous $50,000 allocations for the domestic violence shelter had never actually come out of the county budget, but had come from “line-items” from coal severance money issued by the state. Ward said if there is an increase in coal severance taxes, a line item can be put in for the shelter at that time.
Fleming’s motion to restore funding to the shelter failed by a vote of four to two, with Fleming and Terry Adams voting yes and Ward, Holbrook, Keith Adams, and Howard voting no.
After a lengthy discussion, the court agreed to add $15,000 to tourism. The expense budget for the recreation center and the utilities budget will both be cut by $7,500.
Ward added that county employees will not get a pay raise this year.
Treasurer Hampton also cautioned the court that maintenance costs for the Letcher County Courthouse continue to increase as the building ages.