It isn’t news that the collapse of the coal economy and the loss of coal severance tax receipts has put Letcher County and other coal counties in a bad financial situation, but it has forced the road and sanitation departments in Letcher County to use equipment that is worn out and has been rebuilt so often it is almost impossible to keep in operation.
At Monday’s meeting of the fiscal court, Judge/Executive Terry Adams said county mechanics are welding over previous welds in an attempt to hold trucks and other equipment together, and several pieces are so far gone they can no longer be repaired.
If the trend continues, Letcher County could soon face an emergency with road and sanitation equipment, Adams said. While new equipment would be the ideal solution, in this time of tight budgets and forced austerity, the county will be forced to visit state surplus sales and out-of-state surplus auctions.
Adams said trucks and other equipment have already far outlived their life expectancy. Most of the equipment that is failing was purchased when the county was receiving up to $4 million a year in coal severance taxes. However, with the decline of the coal economy, that figure is around $100,000 a year and the budget is very tight. This year’s budget of $7,420,324.72 is down by almost $3.3 million from the Fiscal Year 2012-2013 budget of $10,715,134, and when the 2018-2019 budget was adopted, the county had suffered a drop in coal severance tax receipts of $4,021,332 since 2013.
Adams told the court that two out of three of the tractor/mowers are inoperable and at least two more heavy trucks are needed. Sanitation trucks are often sidelined due to mechanical problems and the county only has one mower left to cut roadside weeds.
Adams also addressed personnel issues, saying the county needs two more operators for mowing and other highway department duties, a tractor operator and a commercial driver license (CDL) certified driver. He said that anyone with those skills who is looking for work should contact him at his office of get in touch with the county garage.
The court voted unanimously to give Adams permission to purchase two surplus mowers and two used trucks from the Kentucky state sale of surplus equipment. Adams said he would also like to visit a surplus auction of municipal equipment in Alabama and look at sanitation vehicles, and the court approved that as well.
In a related matter, Judge Adams set the date for a special called meeting for June 6 at 6:30 p.m. to conduct the second reading of the $7,420,324.72 Fiscal Year 2019-2020 budget. This year’s budget is slightly higher than last year’s budget of $6,693,812, and Letcher County Treasurer Doris Jean Frazier said the increased revenue comes from increases in property taxes as well as motor vehicle and franchise taxes. The court reappointed Frazier as Letcher County treasurer by unanimous vote. Adams said Frazier has done an excellent job in the office since she was confirmed in 2017 to replace Philip Hampton, who had served the county for 37 years as county treasurer. Before becoming county treasurer, Frazier worked as county finance officer.
In other business, the court presented Dr. Fares Khater with a plaque to honor him for completing this year’s Boston Marathon. Khater, who lives in Pikeville, specializes in internal medicine and infectious disease at Mountain Comprehensive Health Care in Whitesburg. He thanked the court and said he was inspired to begin running when MCHC CEO Lois Baker suggested he run in a three-kilometer race in the 2003 Mountain Heritage Festival. Khater said he has been in Whitesburg for 16 years and loves working here. He added that he enjoys running on city streets and trails during his lunch break.
The court issued a proclamation declaring May as Stroke Awareness Month. Judge Adams emphasized the FAST stroke warning signs. The signs include numbness in the face, arm or leg, especially if it is localized on one side; confusion or trouble understanding others; difficulty speaking, and trouble seeing with one or both eyes.
Second District Magistrate Sherry Sexton delivered the jail committee report, and said the Letcher County Jail’s greatest needs are for more trained employees and repairs to the air conditioning system. She said the jail is overpopulated, and that arrests are up in the county. Sexton said Jailer Bert Slone is working with the Kentucky River Care Center to provide mental health counseling to inmates and she is working on a grant to provide opioid addiction treatment as well. She suggested that the court establish a committee to address the need for drug treatment.
Slone also presented the 2018-2019 jail policy and said that as of Monday afternoon, two of the jail’s three air conditioning units have been repaired and are now working. He said the jail was recently reviewed by state jail inspectors and they recommended additional opportunities for shaving and improvements in grievance procedures for inmates. The court was unanimous in expressing thanks to jail inmates who work outside the jail cutting weeds and other duties.
Letcher County Court Clerk Winston Meade presented a check to the court to finish out the settlement of excess fees from 2018. Meade said the $14,748.29 check completes the 2018 settlement of $31,748.29. In January, Meade gave the court $17,000 as partial payment of the settlement, with the rest held until the audit was complete.
Mike Blair, of Crases Branch, who is working on a police memorial for the county, asked the court to create a checking account for donations to the project. Blair said this is to assure that donations go directly to the account. A committee was formed to direct the project composed of Blair, Third District Magistrate Maverick Cook, First District Magistrate Jack Banks, Fourth District Magistrate “Cheddy” Smith, and Sheriff Mickey Stines.
The court heard a report from Bridget Back, a volunteer with the Letcher County Tourism Commission, concerning a grant for Fishpond Lake through the U.S. Land and Water Conservation Fund. Back said the grant is for a minimum of $50,000 and requires a match that can be satisfied by in-kind contributions by the county. This could include work done by volunteers, the use of county equipment, or other efforts to improve the park.
The commission wants to expand the recreational vehicle (RV) lots, which Back said aren’t big enough for some larger RVs. It also want to put in new playground equipment, and build a new bathhouse, which would include laundry facilities for visitors, and a visitors’ center with a store.
Back told the court the commission has been told that the lake and surrounding area belong to the county and she said it is determined to make the best of it. She added that the grant will be a slow process, and it could take up to a year before the commission knows if it will receive funding. The commission also wants to put up new signs on the site, build overlooks, and put in animal resistant garbage receptacles.
Judge Adams told Back he wants to make sure people know the court has not closed all-terrain vehicle trails in the area of the lake. He said the original trailhead at the old tennis court is still available but several non-official sites that have been created by trail riders driving over them have created siltation problems. Adams said the county is trying to be a better steward of the lake. The court voted to appoint Brandon Robinson to fill a seat on the tourism commission vacated by Kyle Smith.
Adams reported on a recent letter he received from the Letcher County Water and Sewer District informing him that fire departments in Letcher County can no longer tap into county lines to supply treated water to swimming pools. Adams said the water is often not accounted for and counts as a water loss with the state. He added that people can still fill up their pools but will have to do so with water from the tap, which is metered and will be counted on their water bill.
Fire departments will also be required to account for treated water from Letcher County lines they use for training, fighting fires, etc. Adams said the county will not charge the departments for water they use for firefighting and training, but the Kentucky Public Service Commission has tightened requirements for reporting on losses of treated water in county water districts statewide. Adams said he will have copies of the reporting form the district made and have them distributed to fire departments in the county, adding, “hopefully, they will comply.”
The court discussed longstanding problems with playground equipment at county playgrounds. Adams asked County Attorney Jamie Hatton to contact Playmart, the company that sold the county the equipment, and say it hasn’t satisfied the lifetime warranty. Hatton said he will address the issue and Adams said if it doesn’t voluntarily correct the problems, the county will have to file a lawsuit.
Bank balances for county agencies as of April 30
• General Fund: $925,545.14
• Road and Bridge Fund: $787,148.69
• Jail Fund: $38,732.43
• LGEA Fund: $506,420.91
• Senior Citizens Fund: $228.30
• Forestry Fund: $18,364.20
Total of all Funds: $2,276,439.67