Controversy involving the Letcher County Recreation Center has broken out once again at a meeting of the Letcher County Fiscal Court. The issue resurfaced at the court’s April meeting Monday night when District Two Magistrate Terry Adams introduced a motion to allow all school-age children in the county to attend the center at no charge four days a week.
Although Adams has been one of the center’s most severe critics, particularly concerning the cost of servicing the debt, he painted the practice of charging admission to the facility in terms of income disparity, saying that a number of children are shut out because of financial circumstances.
“How do we pick and choose?” asked Adams. “Families who have money and those who don’t have money?”
District Five Magistrate Wayne Fleming seconded the motion. Fleming said that since the center is taxpayer funded it should be open to all children at no charge. He also called for opening the doors to senior citizens. Fleming has also expressed concerns on numerous occasions about the county’s ability to pay for the center.
Letcher County Parks and Recreation Director Derek Barto, who directs the center’s operations, told the court he already has a program called “Senior Sneakers” underway that will allow seniors 65 and over with Medicare, Medicaid and other insurance to participate at no charge. Barto added he he has never turned a child away from the center regardless of their ability to pay. He suggested working with Family Resource Centers at county schools to identify students with a real need and to work to provide some means to let them in.
Barto said that for him the problem with opening the center with no restrictions is not financial, but that the center would not be able to accommodate the crowds. He said the potential overcrowding could be dangerous and would make it difficult for staff to monitor all of the children. Barto also said that when the center was being established, staff at other county centers told him it would be necessary to charge some admission to give people a sense of ownership so they would take care of the center.
“What do we do if we get 1,000 kids?” asked Barto.
Letcher County Judge/ Executive Jim Ward said he would not recommend opening the center to everyone at no charge, saying it would get too crowded and could be dangerous for children. Ward also said that he had personally paid the dues for several children and invited other court members to join him in subsidizing needy children. He agreed that kids who can’t afford to pay should still get into the center.
Fleming replied that he was not able to pay enough to accommodate all the children in the county, but said if he had the money he would pay for all of them. He also objected to having children go through Family Resource Centers saying it might create a stigma for them by having to ask to get in free. He said that raising attendance 20 percent would not put an undue burden on the staff.
Ward also pointed to the expenses of operating the center, including building maintenance and keeping it clean, and said he and Barto had talked about having some kind of a program to allow students to work at the center in exchange for their membership. He said that simply opening the doors to the general public would guarantee the center’s failure. Ward also asked about the possibility of parents abusing the privilege by simply dropping their children off and then not coming back to get them at closing time.
“If you want it to fail, then go ahead and let everybody in,” said Ward. “What are we going to do if parents just drop them off and leave them?”
Before a vote on the motion could be taken, Ward moved the question be tabled until the court could examine the issue more closely and see if officials can come up with a solution that would not damage the center. Fleming objected but Ward said that a motion to table was legal even though another motion was on the table. The vote to table Adams’s motion was four to two with Adams and Fleming opposing. Ward, District Three Magistrate Codell Gibson, District Four Magistrate Keith Adams, and District One Magistrate Bobby Howard sided with Ward.
Following the vote, Barto approached the court and said he had spoken with several others about the issue and asked the court to form a committee to raise money for scholarships for children who cannot afford the cost of attending the center. He said he would speak to other volunteers and contact Family Resource Centers at every school in the county to get the names of eligible children and would have a list of names and a plan for the project ready for the next court meeting.
Letcher County Treasurer Phillip Hampton told the court the center had a gross income of over $44,000 in March against expenses of just over $38,000, for a profit of $6,292.
The discussion took place near the end of the meeting and was followed by Magistrate Adams asking for the floor in order to “talk to Henry for a minute.” Henry Cook of the Gordon Fire Department was in the audience and said no, but Adams said he had something he wanted to say.
“”If I have hurt your feelings or said anything about you, I’m sorry,” said Adams.
Cook replied that Adams owes all the people in the Gordon area an apology and said the entire controversy over the Gordon Fire Department had been based on a lie. He added that when he heard about the possibility of withholding county funding from the fire department it had hit home.
“When you talk about taking away the money, you’re talking about taking away the life blood,” said Cook. “What becomes of that when you take away the fire department? Who suffers? The people.”
“I made you a public apology,” said Adams. “If you don’t accept it that’s your fault.”
In other business, the court voted unanimously to refinance the remainder of the debt on renovations for the courthouse made in the early 1990s. Ward explained that the original renovation had been financed by a loan through the United States Department of Agriculture. Michael George, an employee with Civic Finance Advisors LLC, told the court that by refinancing with the Kentucky Association of Counties (KACo) the court could not only retire the debt to USDA, which has a number of strings attached, it could also lower its interest rate from 4.75 percent to around 2.8 percent under current rates. George, whose company is contracted to operate KACo Financial Advisors LLC, said the court could approve an ordinance to begin the process and it would not be locked into the loan until the actual bond sale takes place and can back out at any time up to that point.
Letcher County Attorney Jamie Hatton conducted the first reading of an ordinance authorizing the transaction and the court voted unanimously to approve. The court also voted unanimously to enter into an Inter-Local agreement with the City of Whitesburg to seek funding for a project to install sewer lines in Craft’s Colly.
Letcher County Tourism Chairman David Narramore addressed the court and said a study shows that tourism, the state’s third-largest industry, now generates $12.8 million annually in Letcher County. Narramore said that because importance of tourism, he has taken the necessary training to obtain his “basic certification in tourism” as required by the Kentucky Travel Industry Association (KTIA) and the Kentucky Tourism Institute. Narramore, a Whitesburg dentist, serves as director on a volunteer capacity and does not receive any compensation for his work. He said he intends to further his tourism education in order to receive advanced certification as well.
Narramore also reported Letcher County Interactive ARTS Festival will take place in Whitesburg April 18-20. There will be a number of hands-on opportunities for interested individuals to participate with artists in creating and learning, At present 51 individuals are registered and interested parties can register by calling Ann Bradley at (606) 633-2362. More than 300 participated in last year’s ARTS Festival.
In a related matter, Ward told Narramore there is interest in putting up murals like the one on the old radio station building in Whitesburg in other cities in the county. Ward said he has spoken with one building owner in Jenkins about the prospect and has held preliminary discussions with people from Fleming Neon and Blackey.
Narramore asked the court to approve painting future murals on aluminum sheets, which can be attached to buildings, rather than directly on the building. That way, said Narramore, if the painting is damaged the sheet can be removed and repainted. He said the tourism commission had learned a good deal about murals from the one in Whitesburg and not painting them directly on buildings was one of the things they had learned.
In other business:
• The court voted unanimously to name the following roads for veterans: Ice Road off Highway 588 for Specialist Four Bennett Combs, United States Army; Tulip Lane off Ice Road in memory of E-4 Glen D. Collins, United States Air Force; and Little Cowan Road in memory of brothers Private Shelby G. Sturgill and Sergeant William K. Sturgill, United States Army, World War II.
County fund bank balances as of April 10:
• General Fund — $823,591
• Road and Bridge Fund — $870,816
• Jail Fund — $117,460
• LGEA Fund — $514,497
• Senior Citizens Fund — $135,518
• Forestry Fund — $14,088
• Letcher County Public Courthouse Corp. Funded Depreciation Reserve Account — $595,558