Whitesburg KY

Court, legislators doing battle over severance funds

A fight over how Letcher County’s coal severance tax money should be spent has broken out between five of six members of the Letcher Fiscal Court and the two state legislators who represent the county.

The disagreement became public late last week when the fiscal court voted 5-1 to adopt a resolution asking the Kentucky General Assembly to throw out a list of 46 projects identified by 94th District Rep. Leslie Combs and 92nd District Rep. Ancel Smith as those most deserving of being funded with $6.185 million in severance money. The money is expected to be generated from a 4.5 percent tax on each ton of coal that will be mined here during the next two years.

The fiscal court has called on 29th District State Sen. Johnny Ray Turner to amend the list submitted by Combs and Smith so that it contains nothing more than the 32 projects recommended by the court for funding at its January meeting.

Topping the court’s list are water line extension projects planned for the communities of Mayking, Payne Gap, Millstone, Premium, Red Star and Hallie. Combs says that with a price tag of $6.75 million, the first six projects recommended by the court would cost more money than the county will receive. She said the court’s list would also eliminate 40 other projects “very worthy” of severance funding, ranging from a $300,000 allocation to help build the new Letcher County Health Department to $10,000 being earmarked to help remodel the Hemphill Community Center.

Letcher Judge/Executive Jim Ward said that if the court’s recommendations aren’t adopted by the General Assembly, well over half of Letcher County’s rural population will remain without the public wa ter for which they have become so desperate. Ward said the recent drought has helped open his eyes to the importance of projects that would eventually connect all of Letcher County’s public water systems with Carr Fork Lake in Knott County.

“This drought really brought it into the forefront,” said Ward. “To me, these water projects, which would serve at least 1,600 homes, should be the top priority (because) we have about 63 percent of our people without water. This money we’re asking for would be seed money to get grants to go ahead and get all the projects done.”

Combs said she also wants to provide public water to every home in Letcher County and believes all the needed projects can be funded over the next four to six years. She said the list submitted by her and Smith includes a $1 million project to extend water lines to Payne Gap while also linking together the Jenkins and Fleming-Neon water systems. The legislators’ list also includes a $1.35 million bonding project to extend water lines from Blackey to the communities of Red Star and Hallie.

With the Letcher County Water and Sewer District just starting construction on water-line extension projects in Craft’s Colly and Little Cowan, Combs said there is little chance those two projects and the ones at Payne Gap and Hallie/Red Star would be completed before the next round of severance funding is allotted in two years.

“It would be virtually impossible and somewhat irresponsible to think we could do that many projects in two years,” Combs said of the six at the top of the court’s list.

At the March 7 meeting, District Five Magistrate Wayne Fleming cast the only vote against the court’s resolution. Fleming said changing the list would also remove two water-line extension projects approved for the City of Jenkins, which he represents.

“When you change the list you will take off two water projects, Cane Branch and McPeeks Branch, (that) are completely funded,” Fleming said.

“There are 21 projects on here we never heard of,” replied District Two Magistrate Archie Banks.

“I think they’re all good projects,” answered Fleming.

Seth Long, chairman of the Letcher County Water and Sewer District, urged the court to ask the state legislature to stick with the county government’s original list of recommendations. Long identified one project not included in the list submitted by Combs and Smith, a connector pipeline to Carr Fork Lake, as the critical piece of the water-line extension plans for Letcher County.

Whitesburg Mayor James Wiley Craft asked the court to include on its list a $70,000 project to replace the existing water line in the Fields Cliff area of Whitesburg.

“It’s just pennies in the overall scheme, but we have a section of town served by a one-inch galvanized line where they have to schedule showers with their neighbors because the water pressure is so low,” said Craft. “If we have a fire we will be in real trouble. All we will be able to do is stand and watch.”

The court voted to place the Fields Cliff project at number seven on its list, after the other water projects. The list submitted by Combs and Smith authorizes the expenditure of $50,000 for water to Fields Cliff.

Combs said she made her recommendations for severance funding with the knowledge that she and Smith had to develop a plan that would best serve all of the people of Letcher County, including the city governments.

“The coal severance tax money belongs to all of the people of Letcher County, not just the fiscal court,” she said.

Combs said it is now up to Sen. Turner to make the next move in determining which projects get deleted and which get funded.

“The legislators’ list needs to become a reality,” she said. “At this point it’s in his hands.”

Judge Ward said he hopes the fiscal court can convince Turner to spend the majority of the severance tax money on the six water projects at the top of the court’s priority list.

“Whether it’s the popular thing to do or not, it’s the right thing to do,” said Ward. “Let’s break it down to what we really need. Our people don’t even have the basic necessity of water.”

During its special meeting last week, the court also addressed the issue of awarding bids for health insurance coverage for county workers. However, action was deferred until the regular March 17 meeting after it was questioned whether life insurance was covered in the bid package advertised by the court and the bids submitted by two insurance

providers. Bids were submitted on behalf

of Monumental, the current provider, and the Kentucky Association of Counties (KACO).

The court was prepared to vote on awarding the bid, but after Tom Lewis, a Whitesburg insurance agent who has been contracted to serve county workers for Monumental, questioned whether both sets of bids were properly presented, the court decided to delay action.

Lewis told the court he did not believe the bid from KACO contained the same provisions as the bid from Monumental. County Attorney Harold Bolling told the court the question to address was what “is the best bid for the county?”

“You have to take the broader interest of the county into consideration,” said Bolling. “Can you accept what is advantageous and reject what is disadvantageous?”

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