Funding for a proposed new water line between the communities of Payne Gap and Kona is not included in a list of coal severance projects approved this week by the Letcher Fiscal Court. Also missing from the latest list is money for a community park in Fleming.
Citing changes in the manner in which state government will distribute severance refunds to coal-producing counties this year, the fiscal court met in special session Monday to update a priority list last visited in the spring.
Judge/Executive Jim Ward told the court that severance money will arrive in several distribution cycles and that priority lists made earlier in the year would have to be modified to reflect the change. Ward said the county should get its promised allotment of $4.75 million, but that money for some projects will arrive in several smaller payments rather than in one or two larger ones.
"We have $2 million to $3 million available now," said Ward. "Just prioritize that and do what is available."
District Five Magistrate Wayne Fleming asked Ward if there would be any money to begin the project to install water lines in the Payne Gap-Kona area, a project that Fleming and others have advocated for several years. Ward said the Payne Gap project has $250,000 remaining from a previous severance tax allocation, which he said should be enough to complete engineering and other start-up work. Ward said the Letcher County Water and Sewer Commission is in the process of trying to get the project ready for bid, but that the process of choosing engineers is lengthy and takes a good deal of time.
Fleming also raised the question of including funding for a planned park in Fleming that is to be dedicated to the late Tim Hall, a community who died during last year’s Neon Days festival. District Two Magistrate Archie Banks said he had spoken with Fleming-Neon Mayor Suzie Polis and was told the city has not found a piece of land suitable for the park. Polis is Banks’s sister. Ward told Magistrate Fleming that if land is found the court can make a resolution to allow the city to begin the purchasing process.
Funding for the Payne Gap- Kona water project and the new community park at Fleming were originally included in a list of severance tax projects recommended for funding by 94th District State Rep. Leslie Combs. The list prepared by Combs was heavily criticized last spring by every member of the Letcher County Fiscal Court except Fleming.
In a related matter at this week’s special meeting, Letcher County Attorney Harold Bolling cautioned the court to remember that state and federal laws dictate the process under which engineering firms are chosen to design water improvement projects. The issue arose Monday after Magistrate Fleming said he would like to see the engineering work on water projects split among firms to make things move more quickly instead of having one company handle all the work.
Magistrate Banks agreed with Fleming and said he believes the county would be better served if there was more competition in choosing an engineering company. Ward said the current process causes delays because there is so much work for one company to do.
Bolling told the court that the departure of former Water and Sewer Commission Director Greg Pridemore, who left for a position with the federal government, has caused some of the delays. Bolling said there are differing opinions among member of the water and sewer commission on how to proceed with the engineering work, but that state and federal regulations are very specific about how the process must take place. He told the court that although he has been advising the water and sewer commission at no charge, the independent agency needs an attorney badly but can’t afford one.
"We have to make sure we comply with the law," said Bolling.
Magistrate Banks said the current system, where companies are awarded points for a number of performance indicators, presents difficulties. Banks said he has no particular company in mind for doing any of the work but feels that just using one company for the volume of work isn’t feasible.
Bolling said there are still some alternatives not yet explored by the water and sewer commission that may make the process move faster.
In other business, the court closed out its contract with Lexington architect Lee Sims on the Old Jenkins High School after an invoice was clarified by Royalty Construction. Magistrate Fleming complimented Royalty on the good work Royalty’s firm has done on the project.
The court also voted to act as fiscal agent for the Cowan Community Action Group in a $20,000 mini-grant for strategic planning with the Somerset-based Center for Rural Development. Cowan Community Center Director Carol Ison told the court the group wants to continue to provide traditional Appalachian music instruction through the Cowan Creek Mountain Music School and after-school programs.
Ison said the center has been hard hit since the Save the Children Federation moved its operation away from the center and into the Letcher County school system. She said that while the move had left a big hole financially, it is also allowing to center to expand its programming. Magistrate Fleming told Ison the center will also get $10,000 from the court as part of its allocation to each community center and an additional $10,000 as a line item in the current budget.
The court also voted unanimously Monday to allow a private contractor to demolish a bridge at Defeated Creek in exchange for the right to salvage the bridge material.
County Attorney Bolling told the court he would draw up a contract to protect the county’s interest and make sure the materials are all cleaned up.
Bolling said the bridge is on a river that falls under the jurisdiction of the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers, so the work will have to be done to Corps specification. Ward said the value of the material is considerably less than $20,000 so there is no need to advertise the work for bids. Bolling said it suits the interest of the county to have the bridge removed.