Letcher County residents will see the first increase in their property taxes in several years, following a five-to-one vote taken at Monday evening’s October meeting of the Letcher County Fiscal Court. The vote followed a lengthy discussion of the reasons for special taxing districts in the county to set the rates where they are, and although the districts did not lower the rates enough to allow the fiscal court to keep last year’s rate of 13.7 cents per $100 for real property, they did give the court a better understanding of their operational needs.
The fiscal court voted five to one, with Second District Magistrate Terry Adams casting the lone no vote, to set the tax rate for real and personal property at 18.7 cents per $100 in property ($.187), and to set the tax rate for motor vehicles at 13.7 cents per $100 ($.137). Both First District Magistrate Bobby Howard and Fifth District Magistrate Wayne Fleming voted yes, but expressed reservations and said they would not vote for any further tax increases.
The court could have accepted the state’s compensating rate of 19.7 cents, or gone over that by up to four percent without a special hearing. But Judge/Executive Jim Ward told the court that while the county couldn’t quite balance the books with the 18.7 cents per $100, he did not feel the citizens could bear a higher rate. Letcher County Treasurer Doris Jean Frazier told the court that the 18.7 cent rate would add $93 to the tax bill of a property owner whose home is valued at $50,000, and would cost the county about $80,000 in lost revenue if the court took it instead of the compensating rate of $19.7 cents. Ward said he felt they could manage that amount, but couldn’t go lower without serious damage.
The taxing districts set their rates as follows: Letcher County Soil Conservation District, 2.3 (($.023) cents per $100 for real property; Jenkins Independent School District, 87 cents per $100 real and tangible property ($.87), 69 cents per $100 for motor vehicles ($.69); Letcher County Public Schools, 63.4 cents per $100 real and tangible property ($.634), and 49.6 cents per $100 for motor vehicles ($.496); Letcher County Extension Board, 9.7 cents per $100 real property ($.097), 15 cents per $100 personal property ($.15), and 3 cents per $100 for motor vehicles ($.03); Letcher County Public Libraries, real property 11 cents per $100 ($.11), personal property, 14.05 cents per $100 ($.1405), and motor vehicle, 5.32 cents per $100 ($.532); Letcher County Board of Health, 8.0 cents per $100 of real and personal property ($.08), and 8.0 cents per $100 for motor vehicles.
Each taxing district had a representative to address questions from court members, and many touched on similar topics which have been the subject of criticism at court meetings, by audience members and court members as well. The subject of carryover or surplus was touched on by each representative and the explanation was similar. When the reports for setting taxes are made, the districts are usually about halfway through their operating budget for the year and the surplus or carryover is partly there for the remaining expenses before tax receipts arrive the following year. The recommended amount is about half the yearly expenses since it is usually supposed to fund the district for six months. Maintenance and other operating costs are also paid from the surpluses.
Alita Vogel, Director of the Letcher County Public Library, referenced high projected costs to repair damage from water leaks at the Harry M. Caudill Public Library in Whitesburg and other maintenance costs at the Blackey Public Library. She also said that in harder economic times, the role of the libraries is even more crucial because often Internet services are terminated in homes as a cost savings measure and people come to libraries to use computers there for job searches, school and other Internetrelated projects. The libraries are also places where people come together and take various classes including yoga, cooking, and recipe swaps. She added that the libraries in Jenkins and Neon are in pretty good shape, but the repairs on the Harry M. Caudill Library in Whitesburg and the library at Blackie will be expensive.
Harry Smith, Chairman of the Board for the Extension Office, told the court that the geo-thermal heating and cooling system at the Extension Office in Whitesburg is nearing the end of its operating lifetime and one of the six units has already failed and been replaced at a cost of $13,000. Ron Brumley of the Soil Conservation Board gave a lengthy report on the many programs the Conservation District offers for small farmers and property owners, and reminded the court that a growing number of landowners are returning to agriculture either as way to supplement other income streams or to provide a healthier diet at home. He said the district also supports the Letcher County Farmers Market which has been increasingly successful and has partnered with Mountain Comprehensive Health Care to provide a healthier diet for low income residents. Brumley said the Conservation District has a number of other programs and is involved in youth-related projects through schools and fishing programs including a new boat dock being built on the northern end of Fishpond Lake.
Dr. Bill Collins reported on the Letcher County Health Department’s finances and told the court that its carryover for last year was about $69,000 out of $769,000 in tax receipts. Collins said the health department is making every cost savings effort possible and is part of the Kentucky River Health District with six other eastern Kentucky counties. He said some of the expenditures that show on the tally sheet for outof county expenses are for projects that don’t have a large enough base in Letcher County to fund a position, but the entire district has a need for one, so each district contributes to it. He said the health department is scrambling right now and changes in the state retirement system will probably have a negative impact as well.
Neither school district had a representative at the meeting, but the financial problems each one faces from lower evaluations in property taxes and declining enrollment are well known and have been publicly discussed at board meetings. Judge Ward attributed much of the evaluation situation to lower valuation of mineral tax rates and said it has had an across-the-board negative effect in eastern Kentucky. Plans are still on for Letcher County to participate with other coalfield counties to pursue a lawsuit against the state over the reduction in unmined mineral tax estimates. The court voted five to one to accept the tax rates from the special taxing districts. Terry Adams cast the single no vote.
In other business, the court heard a report from Elwood Cornett of the Letcher County Planning Commission. Cornett gave court members a short history of the planning events that led the county to be chosen as a site to locate a new federal prison and referenced three environmental impact studies that have been made on the proposed site at Roxana. He told the court that on September 29 of this year, the last environmental study was completed and there were no negative environmental impacts reported.
Cornett said the report stated that federal peniten- tiaries are significantly overcrowded and there is a need for new prisons. He said the possibility of attracting good jobs to Letcher County has always been the goal of the planning commission in its attempt to secure the prison. He said an environmental impact report is the final study that will be conducted.
The next step before it is finalized will be a record of decision. Cornett said he was promised that will be complete by the end of the year and when that is final, the Bureau of Prisons will begin buying mineral and surface rights, which will take about one year. Construction should last between four and five years. He thanked the court for its support of the project.
The court voted to lease several vans for tourism tours, including one that is handicapped accessible from LKLP for the sum of $1 a year. The vans will be driven by volunteers and will figure in efforts to promote tourism in Letcher County. They also voted to lease a piece of property on Pine Mountain from Carl and Ann Hall for $1 a year. The land is the site of the old “chimney” near the top of the mountain where an old lodge sat before it burned. Judge Ward told the court members that he wanted to be open with them to the fact he is related to the Halls and asked if he should abstain. It wasn’t necessary and they voted unanimously to approve both leases. The chimney site will be used to build a shell for a “ghost house,” as a tourist attraction. Ward and Magistrate Howard also praised all the volunteers who worked on the roadside overlooks and all the businesses that donated supplies and labor as well.
Magistrate Fleming voiced a concern about a bridge on the new section of US 119 on the Cumberland
River side of Pine Mountain that was named for a woman who is from Harlan County. Fleming said he believes the woman worked at the state highway department in Pike County. Judge Ward added that it is his impression that she is deceased. Fleming said the court had voted several years ago to name bridges and roads for veterans in Letcher County, although he said he believes that the lady had a good deal to do with the location of US 119. He asked the court to pass a resolution to be sent to the governor’s office to ask that the DOH reconsider naming the bridge. The court vote unanimously to approve his request.
The court voted unanimously to proclaim the third week in October as Retired Teachers Appreciation week and to place plaques on the Blackey Veteran Memorial Wall in honor of Corporal Carrol Stamper, U.S. Army, and Specialist 4 Donald “Rags” Raglin, U.S. Army. Letcher County Treasurer Doris Jean Frazier told the court the litter abatement funds for the year have been expended and that the $40,452.32 was used to pay school and civic groups to pick garbage up alongside Letcher County roads. She added that another appropriation for litter abatement will be made around the first of the year and groups wanting to participate should call Kim at the Letcher County Garage to get on the list.
Letcher Fire Chief Gary Rogers asked the court to voice its appreciation for the many citizens of Letcher County who turned out last Wednesday to show their support and honor Staff Sergeant Abby Milam, U.S. Army, who was killed on duty in a helicopter accident in August, as her remains were returned to Letcher County for burial. Rogers said he had never seen such a show of respect.