Members of the Letcher County Fiscal Court feel your pain when it comes to scrambling to find the money needed to pay your huge electric bill.
At its January meeting Friday, the court criticized what it termed outrageous increases in bills for electrical service from Kentucky Power Company, a subsidiary of American Electric Power (AEP). The issue was introduced by District Five Magistrate Wayne Fleming, who has received several calls from residents afraid they will lose power because they can’t afford to pay their bills.
Fleming gave each court member a copy of a handout that detailed AEP’s third quarter earnings and charges. According to the information Fleming provided, the Columbus, Ohio, utility is in the process of converting its power plants from coal to natural gas and its dividend rate increased from 41 cents per quarter in 2008 to 50 cents per quarter at present. The company recently gave its top five officers 30 percent pay increases and has lobbying expenses of $29 million. AEP paid no taxes during the period from 2008 to 2010, and received a $545 million rebate, despite earning $5.9 billion.
Fleming said his own electric bill is more than $600 for the January billing cycle and that a number of the people who called him are on fixed incomes and have received bills of $400 or more. He also expressed concern for unemployed coal miners, whose employment insurance was cut off in the last federal budget. Renewal of the unemployment insurance fund is opposed by Republicans in the U.S. House of Representatives and Senate.
“People can’t stand it,” said Fleming. “You don’t kill your customer base.”
Fleming said he blames the Kentucky General Assembly for the rate increase. The General Assembly appoints members to the Public Service Commission, which has the power to approve or deny requests for rate increases from public utilities. He urged Letcher County residents to call or otherwise contact their state legislators and tell them to control the PSC.
“ The PSC is politically appointed,” said Fleming. “It should be elected.”
Letcher County Judge/Executive Jim Ward told Fleming he agrees with him and said 31st District Senator Ray Jones, who represents Pike, Elliot, Lawrence, Morgan, and Martin counties, recently spoke out against the rate hikes and will introduce legislation in the current session to address the issue. Ward said he also believes the PSC members should be elected by the people.
Fleming said the rate increase amounts to the people of the coalfields being asked to foot the bill for AEP to switch its plants over from coal to natural gas, at the same time their jobs are being taken away by the switch. Ward agreed and said the power companies have long been aware of the environmental legislation driving the switch and should have been prepared. New National Ambient Air Quality Standards were issued by the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) in 1997, but were unenforced during the Bush administration. In 1998, the EPA issued orders to 22 states in the northeast and the midwest to curb nitrogen oxide emissions, mostly from coal fired power plants in the Ohio Valley region.
Both Fleming and Ward praised local Kentucky Power personnel, particularly the line workers who brave cold temperatures and bad weather to restore electricity to homes when the power is out. Second District Magistrate Terry Adams said that if rates continue to rise some people will simply be unable to pay them and will be forced to go without electricity.
“If you believe in sin, I believe this is a sin,” said Fleming. “They (AEP) have been in business since 1910, and never lost a dime.”
In other business, Millstone resident Jerry Collins addressed what he believes to be dangerously large silt pond in Millstone. Collins said the pond is located on county property and is 37 feet deep and four acres across, by his measure, and is about twice the size of Jenkins Lake. He added that the dam that secures the pond is in bad shape and has a gap in it. He also said the culvert that was installed to allow water to drain our of the pond is stopped up and damaged.
Collins pointed to the historic flood in Buffalo Creek, W.Va., that was caused by a coal slurry impoundment owned by Pittston Coal, and killed 125 people, injured 1,121, and left over 4,000 homeless. The wave that rushed through Buffalo Creek was more than 30 feet high and devastated the hollow with 132,000,000 gallons of water. He said it is imperative that the county set up a meeting with the permitholder to see that the dam is repaired and the pond is drained to a safe level.
Collins said the toxic lake is located on land he believes may have been mined illegally and without the payment of severance taxes on the coal that was removed He also said the road in Millstone is in bad shape and the lack of guardrails endangers everyone who uses it. He also pointed out a place in the parking lot at Martha Jane Potter Elementary School that has been washed out by the Kentucky River. He said the pavement has collapsed, the fence is sagging, and the bank needs to be shored up before the parking lot can be repaved.
Austin Johnson of the Mountain Shrine Club addressed the court and said he and several of the other younger Shrine Club members have decided to renew the tradition of holding an annual bluegrass festival on Meade’s Farm at Roxana. The Mountain Shrine Club Bluegrass Festival will be held on August 4 at Meade’s Farm and will feature Hammertowne, The Wildwood Valley Boys, The Brent Amburgey Band, Mountain Melody, Blackpowder Express, Sunrise Ridge, and The Bibbers. Advance tickets will be available until July 15. For information about tickets, camping, or vendors, call 606-634-6777.
Judge Ward asked the court to consider retaining a company that can provide architectural and engineering services in order to address several upcoming projects in Letcher County, including a possible federal prison and a number of tourism-related projects. Ward said the company needs to be able to obtain grants as well. He said the county is well situated with recent plans to increase federal funding to the Appalachian counties in Kentucky and needs to have plans in place to expedite applications for grants and other funding sources. County Attorney Jamie Hatton said the best course would be to ask engineering companies for proposals and decide among them.
In other court business:
• Fourth District Magistrate Keith Adams asked if the court could give Letcher Fire and Rescue a $10,000 advance on money that has already been allocated for it but has not been released by the state. The court voted unanimously to approve the request. The court also discussed the possibility of re-introducing an ambulance service for the Cumberland River Area.
• Magistrate Fleming asked if Finance Officer Doris Jean Frazier would attend a meeting of the Cumberland Mountain Arts and Crafts Council to explain the proper procedure for the reimbursement of expenses to the board of directors.
• Judge Ward told the court that both coal severance tax receipts and mineral severance taxes will be slightly up for the coming year.
• The court voted unanimously to approve the Letcher County Jail Procedures Manual. Judge Ward said there have been no changes in the manual since last year.
• The court voted unanimously to put up signs on county lines to commemorate Destin Kincer of Whitesburg, who was recently chosen as Miss Kentucky USA.
• Magistrate Fleming told the court the Kentucky Transportation Cabinet will no longer put signs up dedicating state roads and bridges to Kentucky veterans. Fleming said he believes the action is disgraceful, but added that the Letcher County Road Department still does a good job putting up the signs. Judge Ward said the county will continue to put up the signs and said he doesn’t know why the DOT has stopped the practice.
• The court voted unanimously to reappoint Whitesburg Dentist David Narramore as Director of the Letcher County Tourism Commission. They also reappointed board members Freda Isaacs, Debbie Hogg, Donna Boggs, and Richard Brown.
• The court accepted a partial settlement of excess fees from 2013 in the amount of $20,000 from County Court Clerk Winston Meade. Meade told the court he will give it a check for the remainder of $3,622.72 a soon as the final audit is compete.
Bank balances for county agencies as of January 15:
• General Fund $248,760.58
• Road and Bridge Fund $812,119.60
• Jail Fund $69,873.17
• LGEA Fund $549,110.68
• Senior Citizens Fund $307,153.46
• Forestry Fund $15,077.06
• Letcher County Public Courthouse Corp. Funded Depreciation Reserve Account $619,740.95
• Letcher County Public Courthouse Corp. Debt Service $64,087.92