The Letcher Fiscal Court voted 4-2 this week to reverse an action from the month before designed to give magistrates a vote on whether to allow heavy gas company drilling equipment to cross certain countymaintained roads.
A vote mandating that overweight haul permits be brought before the entire fiscal court rather than decided on solely by the judge/executive’s office was reversed during the court’s April meeting on Monday after District One Magistrate Bobby Howard and District Four Magistrate Keith Adams changed their votes after Howard told the court he felt it would hurt small business in Letcher County.
In March, Howard and Adams joined District Five Magistrate Wayne Fleming in voting for a motion introduced by District Two Magistrate Terry Adams to bring all overweight hauling requests before the entire court. Adams said he brought the matter up to give the people of Letcher County a greater voice in deciding who could haul overweight on Letcher County roads. Judge/Executive Jim Ward and District Three Magistrate Codell Gibson voted against the measure in March.
The permit ordinance was again placed on the agenda for Monday’s meeting and a new vote was taken after Letcher County Attorney Jamie Hatton told the court the March action would require a blanket ordinance to cover all overweight hauling permits in Letcher County with the exception of coal hauling, which is in a special category and regulated by the Kentucky Department of Transportation.
Hatton said that every overweight vehicle would have to be treated the same under any new ordinance, regardless of what it was hauling. Ward suggested that the court reverse the decision and go back to the old way where the county road foreman does an initial check of the road in question and the judge/executive and the magistrate in whose district the road is located will set the amount of a required bond. Howard then moved to go back to the old way, saying he didn’t want to burden small business.
Adams said his intent had not been to hurt small business, but to see that the people of Letcher County again had the opportunity to be heard on the matter. Fleming joined Adams in voting against reversing last month’s action.
In other action, the court came to what was described as a temporary fix for the cost associated with hauling the county’s garbage to a landfill in Laurel County.
Ward told the court he had spoken with representatives of WATCO, the county’s current trash hauler, and had negotiated with it on its original offer of $45.00 per ton ( up from $ 36.05 per ton) to haul county garbage to their landfill and dump it. Ward said he had been able to get the figure down to $41.41 per ton with a possible surcharge if fuel prices continue to rise. Ward reminded the court it has been able to cut the county’s annual losses in the sanitation department from more than $500,000 per year to about $150,000 and said this would keep the deficit in that area. The court voted unanimously to extend the contract with WATCO at the new rates.
Ward said that by agreeing to a one year contract with WATCO, the court would have the opportunity to look for other ways of getting the sanitation department into the black, but said he is hesitant to recommend rate increases until a study is conducted to see how many houses in Letcher County are having their garbage picked up without receiving a bill. Gibson estimated there could be as many as 1,500 homes which don’t pay, most of which he said were probably rental properties.
Gibson, who owns a number of rental properties, suggested that landlords should be held responsible for sanitation bills for their renters by being required add the garbage fees to monthly rentals. The court voted unanimously to accept Gibson’s proposal and to have a court-appointed official check out the 911 addresses to determine how many households are getting away without paying a garbage bill.
The court also voted to raise the monthly fee for commercial Dumpsters to $40 and to raise the fee to dump them to $50 per dump. The court approved the raise from the current fee of $26 per Dumpster and $39 per dump after Ward said the new rates would bring the county in line with neighboring counties. He said the possibility of raising residential rates will be revisited after the 911 study on houses not receiving bills is finished, because it is not fair to raise bills for paying customers without making sure everyone receiving the service is being billed. Ward said the county’s collection rate on sanitation bills has improved and stands at around 91 to 92 percent.
“All we want to do is to provide a good service and not cost taxpayers extra money,” said Ward.
In other business, Ward said he is still coming to terms with the size of state cuts to county finances and is looking at the least painful places to cut to make up for what he said would be close to $1 million in reduced state allocations as well as tax revenues and other receipts.
County Treasurer Phillip Hampton told the court that revenues have been dropping for the last few years while at the same time the county has improved its services to the citizens and picked up some services which have been dropped by the state.
Hampton also reported that property tax collections are down about $ 80,000. In response to Magistrate Fleming’s question of why property taxes are down, Hampton said he isn’t certain if people aren’t paying their taxes or if they simply aren’t buying new vehicles and other taxable property. He added that the road fund will be down around $200,000 and that hardly any new strip mine permits have been issued during the last year.
Ward pointed out that severance tax collected on natural gas was up by $100,000 for the first quarter of the 2011-12 fiscal year.
“It’s getting better, but we have to work with the figures we have,” said Ward.
Fleming read from a statement showing the county received $9,559,966 in severance taxes from gas producer EQT between 2006 and 2010, and that EQT also paid $2,885,234 in property taxes during the same period. EQT representative Maurice Royster told the court that while production is up, the price of natural gas has gone down.
In other business:
• Paul Nesbitt of Nesbitt Engineering recommended the court register the underground fuel tanks at the old South East Coal Co. tipple at Isom, which the county now owns, so the state will work with the county to get the tanks and the county’s liability for the property removed. Nesbitt said he had volunteered to do the legwork for the county at no charge and although it turned into a longer project than planned, he stood by his offer. He said once the site is properly registered the state will provide the county with a plan to take care of the situation, which has been an ongoing problem in cost and potential environmental hazard since the county acquired the property.
• the court learned the Committee for the Letcher County Veteran’s Museum has accepted the low bid of $34,950 presented by Blair Real Estate to expand the museum.
• the court accepted the Parks and Recreation Budget of $110,000 presented by the Letcher County Parks and Recreation Committee with the option of revisiting the budget if county revenue is drastically reduced.
• the court voted to release about $150,000 to the Letcher County Water and Sewer District in unused money from several finished water line extension projects. Kentucky River Area Development representative Benny Hamilton, who administers the Water and Sewer District’s grants, told the court the money is available for operating use. Hamilton also said the Water and Sewer District would be able to repay the county government some of the funds the court has allocated to cover loan payments on water projects.
• the court voted unanimously to extend the county’s contract with WINGS for the medical helicopter facility at Gateway Industrial Park at Jenkins. WINGS representative Jason Heffner told the court the facility is self-contained and a “dream” for a helicopter service. He also said the monthly number of flights meets or exceeds 35 on average, the number of flights necessary for the service to maintain profitability.
• the court voted 4- 2 to extend Codell Construction’s contract on the Letcher County Recreation Center being constructed in Whitesburg by four days for weather related delays. Magistrates Fleming and Adams voted no.
• the court voted unanimously to participate as fiscal agent with the Letcher County Sheriff ’s Department to allow the department to lease four new police vehicles.
• the court voted to expand the county’s contract with Tri-State Electronics to include the county’s 911 service until the maintenance agreement can be rebid. Current provider Randall Caudill has expressed his desire to step back from the work, which Ward said was very time consuming and required Caudill to be constantly on call.
• the court voted to advertise its intention to appoint three Letcher County residents to a board that will decide on reapportionment of magisterial districts.
• the court voted unanimously to renew its agreement with Appalachian Industrial Authority to jointly employ Joe DePriest as Economic Development Director.
• the court voted unanimously to name Kentucky 160 from Roxana to the junction with KY 931 at Kingscreek for Sgt. First Class Lee Ison.
• the court appointed Debbie Hogg and Creeda Isaacs to the Letcher County Tourism Commission. They will replace Doris Adams and Jack Looney, whose terms have expired.
• the court accepted a $9,018 grant for the Pine Mountain Search and Rescue Team. Judge Ward said the grant requires no match and will be used for either a four-wheeler or a “side by side” to assist in rescue operations.
• the court voted to set the speed limits on Garner Road and Stamper’s Branch at 10 miles per hour.
Bank balances for county agencies as of April 15:
• General Fund — $797,119.64
• Road and Bridge Fund — $553,861.84
• Jail Fund — $135,172.95
• Local Government Economic Assistance Fund — $1,123,850.91
• Senior Citizens Fund — $111,201.89
• Forestry Fund — $10,929.68