Letcher County residents who say they don’t like government may get a chance to experience life without it if the state legislature doesn’t fulfill its Constitutional of producing an operating budget. At the Letcher Fiscal Court’s April meeting on Monday night, Letcher County Judge/Executive Jim Ward read a letter from Governor Steve Beshear proclaiming that county and state government will essentially shut down if no budget is in place on July 1.
“The session is over and there’s no budget,” said Ward as he read aloud. “In my opinion, no money can be spent for independent projects.”
Ward went on to tell the court that without a budget there would be no coal severance tax refunds, money which the county uses in a variety of ways from parks to water projects, and there would be no Local Government Economic Assistance funds either. LGEA funds pay for much of the county’s day to day activities.
“If the state gets shut down, the county shuts down too” said Ward.
District Two Magistrate Archie Banks reminded the audience of the importance of the legislature’s inaction as well. “The budget is very important, whether you realize it or not.” Banks also mentioned another fiscal situation the legislature often passes on to county governments and school boards concerning “unfunded mandates,” legislation which call for money to be spent without accompanying state funding to pay for it.
“The legislature comes up with these big ideas,” said Banks. “And who pays for it?”
In other business, the court agreed to provide matching funding of $26,000 for a Justice Assistance Grant which will allow Commonwealth’s Attorney Edison Banks to hire two additional workers strictly for the purpose of reducing the number of non-violent prisoners in the Letcher County Jail. Banks told the court the overcrowded conditions in the jail are partly the result of the long time it takes for the Kentucky judicial process to work and that if just 10 percent of these cases could be expedited it could save the county a good deal of money.
Banks said the expedited process would only apply to non-violent prisoners and that one worker would work with the prisoners to find ways to compensate the victims of their crime and to arrange for a mutually agreeable solution between the prisoners and the victims, such as paying compensation and attending drug rehabilitation. The other worker will supervise the prisoners after they are released and not only make sure the recompense is carried out, but also make sure if the prisoners gets behind in payments or misses a meeting, they get back with the program immediately.
Banks said the program could save the county as much as $8,000 each for non-violent prisoners, who usually either plead guilty or receive a probated sentence. Under the current state structure, the county receives nothing in reimbursement for their stay. Fifth District Magistrate Wayne Fleming cautioned Banks to make certain the process actually saves the county money. Fleming moved to allow the funds to be allocated to Banks’s offi ce with a warning to Banks.
“Our court system is so backed up,” said Fleming. “But this will be on you. If you do this and it doesn’t work, don’t be back.”
Judge Ward told Banks that although he supports his effort and would love to see the financial load lightened and reduce overcrowding in the jail, Banks’s request results from further neglect by the state legislature, which Ward said refuses to do its job to provide funding for state offices. Ward reassured Banks’s office workers that he supports the grant but said the state’s refusal to pay for the upkeep of these prisoners simply amounts to further unfunded mandates that place an added burden on county governments and jails.
“You all should be funded by state money,” said Ward. “It’s not fair to the counties. That’s what the lawsuit (a lawsuit filed by the County Judge/Executives Association) is about. The state is doing so many unfunded mandates and now we have to fund state agencies.”
Banks told the court the Commonwealth’s Attorney’s office is part of the Kentucky Attorney General’s Office and Magistrate Fleming replied, “You don’t have much of an Attorney General working for you.”
The court voted unanimously to provide the $26,099 in the event Banks’s office receives the grant. Banks said the program could not only save the county as much as $8,000 per prisoner in reduced jail costs but it would open up more space for state prisoners, which the state reimburses the jail for keeping. He said that if only 10 percent of prisoners are served through the new system, it will repay the county’s investment. Banks also said it could help the County Attorney’s office as well by allowing some of his workers to do pre-trial counseling if the load is reduced.
County Attorney Harold Bolling told the court that anything his office or the court could do to get more of the accused through the system would be a great improvement. He said his office has already been very active in working out ways to reduce the jail’s load as well as to make those convicted of low level nonviolent felonies pay for their own supervision and reduce costs to the county. Banks added that recent General Assembly sessions have cut over 25 percent of the funding for Commonwealth’s Attorney’s offices and said that every prosecutor’s office in the state is underfunded.
“We use home incarceration and ankle bracelets with these people,” said Bolling. “We make them pay for being monitored, and they can go back to work. There is a huge buildup of cases. We have tried to use the CAP (Court Advocacy Program) program to make people pay for themselves. This takes the burden off the taxpayer. They have to pay for their own upkeep and for a person to monitor them. We do everything we can do to move cases in that direction.”
Both Banks and Bolling assured the court that the program will only apply to non-violent prisoners. Banks said that about 60 percent of the cases that come through his office involve theft, many of which are related to drug addiction. He said the program would only be applied to those who committed simple theft, and would not extend to anyone who had committed any physical assault. Bolling told the court that his office already used that standard as well as applying a similar one to drug cases, saying his office provides diversionary programs and rehabilitation programs for drug abusers, but applies a different and stricter standard to drug dealers.
Edison Banks also told the court that Public Service Commission (PSC) rate increase hearings will be conducted in Hazard and Pikeville. Banks said he had initially requested a session in Whitesburg, but the PSC scheduled the hearings in Pikeville at the Pikeville High School auditorium for 5 p.m. on Tuesday, April 20, and in Hazard on Wednesday, April 21, at the Hazard Community College auditorium at 5 p.m. Banks presented a loose leaf notebook with comments from 300 questionnaires he sent to people who lost food or other goods during the December power outage and Judge Ward said he would have copies made for the PSC members and will provide copies of a DVD the court made during the meeting with AEP in January.
The court also approved the first reading of an ordinance to forbid sexually related businesses from locating in Letcher County. Richard Nelson of the Kentucky Family Foundation spoke to the court on behalf of the ordinance and said the Family Foundation has worked with a number of counties in Kentucky to get similar ordinances passed and that Letcher County was one of four counties in the state who were not “protected” by such an ordinance.
Nelson also cautioned the court to be certain to couch the language of the ordinance in non-religious or moral terms and to say it was for the “health, safety and welfare” of the county and not to include any moral or spiritual values in it. He said that some ordinances which have contained such language have been struck down in the court system. The court voted unanimously to approve the first reading of the ordinance which was conducted by County Attorney Harold Bolling. The ordinance will require a second reading at the next court meeting.
County Treasurer Phillip Hampton told the court that the current Fiscal Year, 2009- 2010, is the first time in 29 years that the court has ended a fiscal year without having to borrow money from the county Road and Bridge Fund to help other county agencies end the fiscal year without running a deficit, even though state funding and revenues are down and coal severance funds have been lowered as well. Judge Ward praised the magistrates and county agencies for being fiscally responsible and said the court has realized savings in two important areas, equipment and health insurance for employees.
Ward said the court entered into a new program that formed a state insurance pool last year and saved over $175,000 on medical insurance premiums. He said that Letcher County received considerable praise from the insurer for the excellent cooperation of county employees. Court Secretary Sue Dunn said the current plan is the best insurance she has had since she started working for the county and it limits out-of-pocket expenses to $1,500 for each employee, no matter what. Dunn called the insurance program an example of “thinking outside the box.”
Ward also said the county has saved a good deal on maintenance and parts costs by buying new equipment such as trucks and road graders rather than attempting to repair old, worn out equipment. Third District Magistrate Codell Gibson agreed and added that a good deal of the county has been cleaned up through a “Miles for Trash” grant program which pays non-profit groups to clean up stretches of road. Gibson said that 99 miles have been cleaned up and the county looks better than he remembers seeing it.
County Attorney Bolling told the court he has completed legal arrangements to allow the county to undertake ditch and culvert construction to alleviate flooding in the Skyview area and that as soon as an easement is finalized the project will be ready to go. Bolling also said he had contacted the Pike County Fiscal Court to discuss Letcher County’s participation in a lawsuit against American Electric Power concerning the December power outage, but said Pike County Judge/Executive Wayne Rutherford told him Pike County wants to wait until the outcome of the PSC hearings is known before taking any further action.
Bolling told the court he is working to clarify and finalize an agreement to allow Letcher County to perform maintenance on a road in the Carcassonne area which is actually part of Knott County. Bolling said the road is isolated from the rest of Knott County and that Letcher County has taken care of the road for years, before the county became aware it was part of Knott County. Bolling asked the court to direct County Surveyor Richard Hall to prepare a surveyed report with a full description of the road.
In other business that came before the court:
• Gaither Frazier of Cumberland River Coal, a subsidiary of Arch Coal, presented the court with a check for $15,500 from Cumberland River Coal to be used to pay for lights on the Little League Field at the Earnest Cook Park in Whitesburg.
• At the request of Letcher County Schools Superintendent Anna Craft, the court voted unanimously to act as a partner with the Letcher County Board of Education in a Community Development Block Grant for $500,000 to allow for the completion of a Vocational and Industrial Training School.
• The court voted unanimously to accept the resignation of Jim Flynn of Blackey from the Board of Directors of the Letcher County Water and Sewer District and to appoint Bernard Watts in his place.
• The court voted to approve the participation of the Letcher County Rangers in the Kentucky Law Enforcement Foundation’s Training Program for Offi cers.
• The court voted unanimously to enter into an agreement with the Kentucky Transportation Cabinet to accept county roads into the road maintenance program. The court also voted to accept an additional $200,000 from the Transportation Cabinet above the regular allocation for road maintenance. Magistrate Archie Banks told the court that Judge Ward had lobbied for the extra funding through his participation in a cabinet road committee.
• The court voted to set annual salaries for elected officials and deputies. Magistrates will receive their current salary of $22,706.52, and the county attorney’s salary of $33,957.67 also remains unchanged, as do the salaries for constable ($4,177.26), county surveyor ($8,200.18), coroner ($20,886.28), deputy coroner ($3,300), and judge pro tem ($43,208.19). The county finance officer’s salary was raised from $31,399.48 to $35,000 and the executive secretary’s salary was raised from $31,399.48 to $35,000.
• The court voted unanimously to approve naming bridges for Letcher County veterans. The bridge at Cook Branch on US 119 North will be named for U.S. Marine Lance Corporal Chad Gilliam; the last bridge before Ramey’s Fork will be named for U.S. Navy Seaman First Class R.C. Cook Jr.; the last bridge on KY 931 before reaching the Cowan Community Center will be named for U.S. Army Specialist Fourth Class Edward Earl McIntosh; and the steel bridge at Martha Jane Potter School will be named for U.S. Army Sergeant First Class Bill Collier.
• Letcher County Tourism Chairman Commission Chairman David Narramore received the court’s permission to expend funds already allocated to the Tourism Commission for the following purposes: $2,500 plus travel for a historical reenactor portraying Frances Gary Powers Jr.’s appearance in three parades (Lt. Frances Gary Powers was born in Jenkins and was shot down over the Soviet Union in 1960 while flying a U2 reconnaissance aircraft over the Soviet Union. After a “show” trial, Powers was exchanged for a Soviet spy). Other allocations are for $1,500 for the Leatherwood re-enactors for educational materials to present living history including the Battle of Leatherwood to elementary and high school students, and $2,280 for 24 community festival banners. The commission also allocated $1,000 each for the Mountain Heritage Festival, the Leatherwood reenactment, and to the Seventh Sons Motorcycle Club, which sponsors Bike Night with Hobo’s restaurant each month in Whitesburg.
• Leatherwood re-enactors Gary Begley and Kerry Crutcher showed the court a series of portrait-sized photographs of various aspects of previous re-enactments of the Battle of Leatherwood and accompanying events. The re-enactment will be held in Cornettsville October 22-24. Educational Day for regional schools will be October 22, the Ladies’ Tea and Saturday Night Ball will be October 23, and the battle re-enactments will be held on October 23 and 24.