Whitesburg KY

Engineers to meet before officials will act on Payne Gap water line proposal

After a lengthy discussion about the possibility of turning the Payne Gap/Kona Water Project over to the City of Jenkins, a call for a motion to do so by Letcher County Water and Sewer Board of Directors Chair Phillip “Pee Wee” Back was met with silence. The board did vote unanimously in favor of a motion by Richard Carter to wait to see if Bell Engineering, the company that originally had the contract to do the project, could reach an accommodation with Nesbitt Engineering concerning plans that Stephen Caudill of Bell says are about 70 percent complete.

Nesbitt Engineering is the project engineer for the City of Jenkins in its work to replace old water lines in the city and is the city’s choice to complete planning for the Payne Gap work as well. Board member Billy Stamper added an amendment to the motion, which Carter accepted, to ask board attorney Jamie Hatton to examine the original contract with Bell Engineering to determine if there is a clause to determine how the contract can be broken.

Although both Caudill of Bell Engineering and Ora Main and Matthew Curtis of Nesbitt told the board they were sure they could work out an agreement acceptable to both companies, Carter said he felt uncomfortable opening the board up to possible liability if Bell decided it had been badly treated at the district’s hands. Hatton agreed to the delay and said he would examine the contract.

The meeting opened with a statement from Letcher County Judge/Executive Jim Ward to the effect that nobody was trying to take anything away from Bell Engineering or from the residents of Payne Gap and Kona. Ward said that the court, in voting to turn the project over to Jenkins, was only trying to expedite the work in order to alleviate a desperate situation in Payne Gap. Both Ward and Fifth District Magistrate Wayne Fleming, who represents Payne Gap and Jenkins on the Letcher County Fiscal Court, said they have had dozens of phone calls from Payne Gap residents begging the county to do something to help them to get decent drinking water.

“The biggest thing we are trying to do is to get water to these people as soon as possible,” said Ward. “It doesn’t matter to us who does it, but these people need water. If you have bad water, then you know what that’s like.”

The matter had been tabled at the regular August board meeting until board members could be certain that the City of Jenkins would be willing to turn the project and the approximately 497 potential customers that may be picked up back to the district when the project is complete.

Jenkins Mayor Charles Dixon attended the called meeting and assured the board that Jenkins has no intention of keeping the customers and has no desire to have additional water lines to service. Dixon assured the board, as Magistrate Fleming and Judge Ward have maintained, that the city only plans to sell the district water from a master meter. The rest, including billing individual customers and maintaining lines, will be up to the district.

Dixon told the board that Jenkins has a 300,000-gallon water tank at the Raven Rock Golf Course that is only used to about a quarter of its capacity. Dixon added that the lines running from the city’s water plant to the tank are not part of the old system that causes the city problems with leaks, and said they are new and in excellent condition. He said the city council had voted at the request of the fiscal court to sell water to the district and service it with the large tank. Aside from that, Dixon said the city has no desire to take on any further obligations such as billing customers or servicing lines. He added that he has also received a number of calls from Payne Gap residents asking the city for water.

“We did not commit to keep these lines,” said Dixon. “We don’t want any more than we already have.”

The board also expressed concerns about whether the plans from Bell would be used or discarded and who would pay the $119,000 Bell has billed the district for the plans. Judge Ward said the payment to Bell will come from the same source it would have come from if the district kept the project, over $1 million in coal severance taxes that have been allocated for the water project. And both Caudill and Curtis agreed that the plans from Bell will be used by Nesbitt.

Caudill told the board that the intention all along has been to connect the entire county with each water source so Jenkins, Fleming-Neon, and Whitesburg can back up each other as well as the county. Fleming agreed that Nesbitt will use the plans Bell has made to this point, and pointed out that Jenkins is already connected to the Mountain Water District in Pike County to have the Pike County district as a back-up as well.

“Nesbitt will use Bell’s plans when they get them,” said Fleming. “The plans will belong to whoever pays for them. The plan is to have the entire county hooked up, including Pike County, Knott County, Neon, all over. This will work out great.”

Board Chairman Back agreed and said, “My goal is to get water to Letcher County.”

Second District Magistrate Archie Banks also mentioned the Knott County Interconnect and said that although the county must have the interconnect to draw water from Carr Creek Lake through the Knott County Water District to serve ongoing county projects, Jenkins has the water and the tank in place and can serve Payne Gap as soon as lines are laid. Banks said that although the Knott County Interconnect has been approved, the Jenkins tank is a good deal less than a half mile from what will be the beginning of the water lines servicing the Payne Gap area.

Ora Main of Nesbitt emphasized that there is no competition between the two engineering companies and said both are mainly concerned with assisting the county and Jenkins to get water to their people. Main added that the two companies will negotiate an agreement that is acceptable to Bell and said he wants to make certain that Bell is compensated to its satisfaction.

Billy Stamper also raised the question of a $52,000 contract with Kentucky Abandoned Mine Lands and Bell Engineering for Bell to conduct the AML study to determine if the area is suitable for AML funding. Magistrate Fleming said he has spoken to representatives of AML and was told it will be a simple process to change the companies and that it should take less than a month.

Judge Ward said the county has already allocated over $1 million for the project and can get started as soon as plans are complete, while waiting on AML to complete its study. Ward said that while he is certain that AML will determine that the area falls under the prelaw designation of being impacted by underground mining before the 1977 law went into effect, the court is determined to serve the needs of the people of Payne Gap and Kona who are among the most desperate for good water in the entire county. Fleming agreed with Ward and said the project switch does not represent any loss to the district.

“I’ve been a magistrate for 11 years,” said Fleming. “I’ve been begging or water for Payne Gap for 10 of them. There will be no loss for the water board here. It’s in the fiscal court minutes and the minutes of the Jenkins City Council The lines will be turned back to the water board.”

Chairman Back called a short recess to allow the engineering companies to discuss a compromise and when they returned, both sides agreed that they were sure they could work it out. However, when Back asked, “Do I hear a motion to turn the project over to the City of Jenkins?”, no motion was forthcoming. At that point, Carter made his motion for further study and Stamper added the provision to have attorney Hatton study the contract and Back asked for a motion to adjourn.

Before adjournment, Judge Ward and Magistrates Fleming and Banks all said they wanted to make certain that everyone in the county understands that nothing has been taken away from the people of Payne Gap and Kona. Ward said the court’s only interest in the matter is to make certain they get water as soon as possible and that no money had actually been allocated to the district as yet.

“We’re not taking any money away from those people,” said Ward. “The money is there for them. We just want to get good water to them as quickly as possible.”

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