Letcher County residents and businesses who haven’t had access to broadband Internet may have the opportunity to connect to a wireless high-speed system in the near future.
Randall Caudill, who operates Whitesburg-based Mega Communications, told the Letcher County Fiscal Court at its March meeting this week that he has a plan to address the broadband problem by using transmitters attached to three radio towers his company owns in Letcher and Harlan counties.
Caudill told the court the lack of service providers in rural and isolated areas can be addressed by attaching wireless transmitters to his towers, and he has applied for a grant from President Obama’s stimulus funds to implement the service. Caudill asked the court for a letter of support for his project and said the Harlan County Fiscal Court is already on board. Caudill, a former Letcher County magistrate, said he owns three radio towers — in Jeremiah, in Whitesburg, and in Lynch. Each tower has a 40-mile range, and Caudill said the towers should be able to blanket the area.
Caudill said in more rural areas surrounded by steep hollows, additional equipment such as repeaters may be required, but said he plans to proceed with the project whether the grant comes through or not. He said he also plans to off er packages including telephone service and security cameras with the broadband service. Caudill said each system (tower) can service up to 1,200 accounts and the transmitters can provide up to 3 megabytes (3 million bits of information) per second, a respectable speed for broadband and exponentially faster than dial up which often runs at about half the total that telephone modems can provide of 56 KPS (kilobytes, 56,000 bits per second). Basic broadband is defined as a system that exceeds 780,000 bits per second.
Broadband penetration is now considered a key economic indicator in analyzing potential for economic development and lack of broadband Internet service is often cited by economic development experts as one of the critical infrastructure elements isolated rural areas like eastern Kentucky must address in order to develop the sometimes unique commercial and industrial opportunities possible in their regions. Since telephone and cable companies are land-bound, it is not profitable for them to run new fiber optic lines into isolated areas which can allow for broadband. The Internet was initially lauded as a possible avenue for commercial and industrial development and marketing to help rural areas compete with urban areas, but the slow speed of dial-up connections has hampered opportunity.
Caudill, who is on the Airport Board, also told the court that plans to locate the proposed airport near Stafford Branch in Isom are still in effect, but added that if land ownership issues with a regional coal company are not resolved, the board may switch to an alternate site near Doty Creek which will place about two-thirds of the airport in Letcher County and one-third in Knott County. He said an Airport Board meeting is scheduled for Monday, March 22, at Pine Mountain Grill at 6 p.m. and the public is welcome to attend.
In other business, Tourism Commission Chairman David Narramore, a Whitesburg dentist, presented packets of the tourism brochures to court members and delivered an oversized check for $8,800 from the Center for Rural Development. The real check has already been deposited and will be used for design of a website and to pay for a promotional video which will be used to promote tourism in Letcher County. The brochures will be placed in welcome centers and other strategic locations for tourists to pick up as they pass through the region.
In addition to touting the county’s natural beauty (Little Shepherd Trail and the linear Appalachian Trail Park, along with Bad Branch Falls and other natural attractions), the brochure directs visitors to Appalshop theater for a bluegrass show or to view Appalshop’s internationally known films, visit art galleries in Whitesburg, or see the living apparition of Kentucky legend “Bad” John Wright, Devil Judd Tolliver, in the outdoor drama “The Little Shepherd of Kingdom Come” at the amphitheater in Jenkins named for the drama.
Tourism commission member and Confederate re-enactor Dave Chaltes spoke to the court about tourism matters and reported on a successful Appalachian Winter Author’s Workshop and Winter Author Showcase, which included book signings. Twenty-one authors visited including several who specialize in the Civil War. Chaltes also told the court if it hears reports of a U.S. Army General resembling Ulysses S. Grant wandering around the top of Pine Mountain, it was actually fellow Civil War re-enactor Ronald Perrin of Athens, Ga. Chaltes said Perrin was in Letcher County to attend the first annual Lee/Jackson Tri-State Family Reunion when he got lost and ended up driving the entire length of the paved portion of the Little Shepherd Trail along the top of Pine Mountain.
Perrin told Chaltes that the trail allowed for some of the most beautiful views of the mountains of eastern Kentucky he has ever seen, but added that sometimes he was scared to death when he looked down from the steep overlook sites. Chaltes added that Perrin is a “total flatlander” and is not used to winding mountain roads on steep mountain ridges.
In other business, the court voted unanimously to enter into the annual Rural Secondary Road Agreement with the Kentucky Department of Transportation. Engineering Tech Greg Tackett of the Letcher County office told the court the county has 76.5 miles of road classified as rural secondary road and the anticipated allotment from the Transportation Cabinet for the 2010–2011 Fiscal Year is $1,183,867. Tackett said the entire amount is designated to be spent on maintenance and construction of rural secondary roads in the county and the funding comes from the state’s motor fuel tax. The court also voted unanimously to enter into the County Road Aid Cooperative Contract, which provides state funding at 60 percent, less three percent set aside for emergencies, of the county’s share of the projected revenue for the coming year and is used for maintaining county roads.
The court had several requests for Tackett and Sam Hale, branch manager of the Pikeville DOT office. Third District Magistrate Codell Gibson told Tackett that several pieces of structural steel, possibly from guardrails, stick out near the Craft’s Colly Road in a place where the highway narrows and pose a danger to vehicles passing each other. Judge/Executive Jim Ward also asked Tackett to issue a request for the county to be able to tear out several beaver dams that threaten roads or property. Fifth District Magistrate Wayne Fleming asked Tackett to look at a number of places along Route 805 and praised state highway workers for helping county workers to keep Letcher County roads clear during the recent snowstorms. Hale told the court the state had used an enormous amount of salt and is now faced with repairing an equally large number of potholes and broken roads from the combination of road salt and freezing weather.
The court also voted to accept the Letcher County Jail’s FY 2010–2011 budget. Letcher County Jailer Don McCall presented the $999,691 budget and told the court this year’s budget had come in at $46,000 less than last year’s. Second District Magistrate Archie Banks praised McCall for his fiscal responsibility and said a budget reduction almost never happens in Kentucky unless it is involuntary.
“It is unheard of in Kentucky for a jail budget to actually go down,” said Banks.
Judge Ward also praised McCall, saying he wanted to brag on the excellent job McCall has done as jailer. Ward said it is hard to manage the jail anyway, but coming in with a budget below last year’s was really something. In response to a question about an expense report featuring a singularly large medical cost that Fleming said he had questioned earlier in the fiscal year, McCall said he had challenged the costs and gotten them reduced to the Medicare rate. By doing so, a $21,000 hospital bill was reduced to $4,200. Fleming said it was ironic that so many Letcher County residents are uninsured when Kentucky law requires the county to pay inmate medical bills during their incarceration.
June Maggard, a Letcher County animal rights activist, made an emotional attack on the current fiscal court and the previous court for not producing ordinances to protect animals in Letcher County. Maggard told the court she was there on behalf of the animals and said she wanted to see animals protected by county ordinances so they can’t be starved or mistreated. At the same time she praised Sherriff Danny Webb and the Letcher County Sherriff ’s Department for their help when “animal rescues” are made. Maggard said she had participated in a similar rescue in Harlan County recently, and asked why the court hadn’t done anything similar to Harlan County’s efforts.
Maggard’s attack seemed to be directed at Letcher County Attorney Harold Bolling, but Bolling answered her charges by discussing what the county government is able to do under Kentucky state law. Bolling said he had been contacted by Dana Outlaw, another animal rights activist, last Friday about the ordinances which Maggard said had been promised for some time, and he told her he had researched the request when it was made. Bolling said that all the actions requested were already covered under existing Kentucky law and in any instance when state law and county ordinances cover the same activities, state law will always take precedence. He said Kentucky’s animal cruelty law does an excellent job of protecting animals in the state and added that the nature of the activists’ request had centered on allowing them to enter onto private property to essentially act in a law enforcement role, which is also illegal under Kentucky law unless they are accompanied by law enforcement personnel and undergo training to work with county officers.
“Some of you wanted to have the power to go on private property to investigate,” said Bolling. “KRS (Kentucky Revised Statutes) addresses it. You have to go for training to work with sheriff ’s deputies and the court can’t pass an ordinance which overrides state law. If you can tell me what else you want in an ordinance I will look at it, but I resent it that you say it’s my fault. I prosecute off enders when they come before me. What you all want to do is already happening. I work every day with the Sheriff ’s Department and we’re doing our jobs. Don’t say we’re not. Nobody even bothered to call me about this until last Friday. I’ll be happy to help you get information on how to be trained.”
Bolling told the court he had also been asked to look into state law covering cable television franchises to see if the county had any authority to regulate rates or to force providers to serve isolated areas. He said there are no existing county franchise agreements with any cable television provider except those made by the cities, Jenkins, Fleming- Neon, or Whitesburg, and the county has no part in them. Bolling said if the court wants to enter into franchise agreements, its enforcement powers would be limited to dictating basic cable rates, which would not include premium channels or packages nor would it give the court any authority to insist that broadband services be provided.
Bolling said a recent federal law concerning cable television providers had actually done what it intended to, which was to break up large monopolies on television and telephone service and create a lot of smaller highly competitive providers. He told Judge Ward the county’s best option would be to invite cable or telephone companies to enter into more rural areas and to help them with some of the infrastructure problems they might face. He added that cable companies rarely own their own poles and usually rent space from electric power companies such as American Electric Power.
Magistrate Banks said that all the court really wants is to see that cable television service is made available to everyone and is not so expensive that nobody can afford it. Bolling said the court could also enter into franchise arrangements, but said the option of simply forming an alliance with a cable company would probably be the best route. He added that the income most cable providers make from providing broadband service helps them keep basic television rates low, so it would be in the cable provider’s best interest as well as the county’s to work to have cable providers off er broadband as well.
Judge Ward asked if there were any protected franchise territories in the county where other cable providers are not allowed to run lines, but Bolling replied that other than in places where cities have their own franchise arrangements, there are no protected territories in the county and any cable provider can off er service if it is willing to extend its lines into any area. Bolling said he has served as County Attorney for 28 years and during that time, no franchises have been sold by the county for cable television service.
In other court business:
• The court accepted the Parks and Recreation Committee’s proposed $110,000 budget for FY 2010–2011.
• County Sur veyor Richard Hall presented a completed easement arrangement to allow the county to widen and maintain Vanover Road and the court voted unanimously to accept Hall’s work and to add Vanover Road to the county’s road list. County Attorney Bolling told the court there are three parties who will need to sign the agreement in addition to the court, and he will make arrangements to accommodate the signers.
• The court voted to accept a 9.1 percent increase in insurance rates for county employees and to stay with its current plan and provider. Judge Ward said by entering into its current arrangement, it has saved about $175,000 and still provides better insurance for county employees.
• The court approved the first reading of an ordinance to set the speed limit at 15 miles per hour for CSX Road and 10 MPH for Sky View Road, Speed Road, Ash Street, and Court Road.
• In response to a request from Kim Eldridge of the Hazard branch of Hospice of the Bluegrass, the court promised to allocate funds to help with the construction of a 20,000-square-foot inpatient residence facility, which will serve Letcher County and 15 other eastern Kentucky counties, if any additional funds become available. Judge Ward said he would ask regional legislators to help too, but added that the Kentucky House of Representatives has already passed its budget and at this point, counties have very little input as to the disposition of coal severance money. Eldridge said the facility was designed by Whitesburg architect Bill Richardson.