In a long and contentious meeting, the Letcher Fiscal Court took action to cut its budget deficit, which is the result of drastic reductions in coal severance tax receipts.
Much of the discussion at the court’s November meeting Monday night focused on reducing expenditures in the Senior Citizens Program and adjusting rates for sanitation services. The court also heard comments from numerous citizens.
The Senior Citizens Program will see the greatest changes. Judge/Executive Jim Ward told the court the program would require an extra $625,000 in order to break even in the current fiscal year. The county’s six senior citizens centers will be closed — excluding three “satellite centers” — and the Letcher County Recreation Center will be modified to accommodate seniors and serve as the single gathering place for Letcher County seniors. The satellite centers authorized Monday will be used for distributing prepared meals to those seniors who meet the criteria for delivered meals and who either choose not to go to the recreation center or cannot do so. The Senior Citizens Program will continue to transport seniors to the central location, although the details have not been worked out.
The discussion on the Senior Citizens Program grew a little heated after comments by Peggy Roll, Human Resources Director at the Kentucky River Area Development District (KRADD). Mike Moore of KRADD had already told the court that the state had informed KRADD it would no longer pay for at least two of the centers due to the low number of participants, and Roll added that if the court persists in keeping the centers open it will probably be unable to continue to feed the number of seniors it currently does.
Roll told the court that several centers are in bad shape and also pose a danger to seniors because of hazardous steps and other factors. She said KRADD had spent more than $5,000 on water testing at the Oven Fork Center in the previous year alone. Oven Fork is one of the centers marked for closure by the state. She reminded the court that the Knott County Senior Citizens Program had been forced to drop its feeding program from 140 meals a day to 20 and asked if the court members wanted to see a drop like that just to keep a building open. She added that five meals a week can still be served and sent out from the rec center if the court voted to close the outlying centers.
“I don’t want to see you go from feeding 400 people to feeding 66 (the amount the county’s contract with KRADD would provide for if no changes are made),” said Roll.
Fleming said that some of the centers serve more than 30 people a day, but Roll said that if the court can find a central location for cooking the meals and on-site meals, it can save enough money to continue at the current level of service.
The vote to consolidate in the rec center was four to two with Fleming and Terry Adams voting no.
Garbage Bills Are Increased $3
Sanitation rates will be raised by $3 per month although Judge/Executive Jim Ward told the court that in order for the Sanitation Department to break even, it would require an increase of $8 per month. He said that amount would allow the garbage collection division of the department to break even and keep the recycling center in operation. The court voted to approve cuts to the recycling operation so that while “blue bag” recycling will continue, the county will no longer pick up loose cardboard, and a fee will be assessed for picking up furniture and other large items. Adjustments to dumpster rental fees will also be made, including raising Dumpster fees from $50 to $60 per month.
Other county departments that saw cuts or rate adjustments included the 911 Program. Ward said 911 faces a deficit of $116,000 and suggested increasing the fee to $2.25 per month, which was approved by the court. The court also voted to close all county-operated community centers and allow them to revert to being operated in their respective communities for a lease fee of $1 a year. Those buildings that are not being used will be declared as surplus and sold. The Campbell’s Branch Community Center was declared surplus due to the $20,000 per year electric bill, and the court voted to allow the community to keep a smaller building on the property.
All county parks will be winterized and the lights and water will be turned off and restrooms closed. All county-owned facilities at Fishpond Lake will also be winterized and shut down, although access to the lake and county parks will not be restricted. These are standard seasonal procedures. Little League and other baseball teams will be expected to share in paying electric costs for the lights at the Earnest Cook Park in Whitesburg. Those who don’t pay will not be allowed to use the lights.
Parks and Recreation Director Derek Barto opened the meeting with a vigorous defense of the recreation center and told the court that the center serves a lot of senior citizens, including 228 who participate at no charge through the Silver Sneakers program. He said the center has never taken any money out of the general fund. Barto said he does not want to see the senior citizens centers closed, adding that seniors will have even more access to the center after the current arcade room is removed to make a place for the seniors to eat and congregate. Barto said an upstairs exercise room has already been set aside for the use of seniors who work out at the center with chairs and a coffee pot that seniors already use daily.
Barto told the court the recreation center has 1,200 members and averages 2,200 visits a day. He added that 405 parties have been held in the center’s party rooms.
Fleming said he wasn’t criticizing Barto’s job performance, but believes the center should be self-supporting with Barto’s salary taken out of its operating expenses. Barto reminded Fleming that he has also served as Parks and Recreation director for the past 11 years, and that his office is located in the recreation center. Fleming also mentioned insurance for the center but Magistrate Keith Adams said the court pays the insurance for every county building.
Fleming and Adams presented budget suggestions to the effect that the recreation center should be entirely self-supporting except for the loan service and that the Government Channel be discontinued and replaced with something similar to the system Jenkins now uses that just broadcasts city council meetings. They also suggested that no county vehicles be used except for work-related purposes and that only employees on 24- hour call such as emergency workers be allowed to take them home. No action was taken on the suggestions.
In an effort to raise revenue, Keith Adams suggested that the court declare the old South East Coal tipple at Isom surplus and advertise the entire property for sale. He said the county could use the proceeds to shore up deficits in the county budget and said the move could save the Senior Citizens Program. The court originally voted to sell the property in March 2014, with Magistrates Terry Adams and Fleming voting against selling because they felt that it could provide a site for businesses to locate and bring jobs to the county.
For the most part, the meeting was not marred by the angry exchanges that have permeated some recent meetings. However, County Financial Officer Doris Jean Frazier asked the court for time to refute an allegation made by the Kingscreek Fire Chief Bill Meade concerning dishonesty in reporting financial matters.
While making comments on the recreation center, Meade told the court that some of his neighbors in Kingscreek had complained that their children couldn’t afford the membership fee for the center and said that “no one has been honest with us” concerning the financial situation of the center as far as total costs. In monthly financial reports, the center has shown an operating profit, but Meade’s comment referred to the annual $600,000 debt service for the center, which is paid from coal severance funds and is specifically detailed in the annual budget.
Frazier told the court that Meade’s comments were inaccurate and were aimed at County Treasurer Phillip Hampton and herself. She challenged anyone to go through past audits and find any improprieties, adding that every aspect of county government is audited on a regular basis.
Meade also told the court that the Kingscreek Senior Citizens Center operates differently than others and that the center rents its space from the Kingscreek Volunteer Fire Department while the county owns the other centers. Keith Adams asked Meade what happens to the $700 monthly rent the court pays for use of the space and Meade said it goes to the fire department. Adams asked if the rent could be lowered, but Meade said the department couldn’t bear more than a $100 per month decrease and added that the fire department had just purchased all new appliances for the center.
Meade also said the Kingscreek community already supports the senior citizens and community center other than paying the rent and suggested increasing efforts to collect delinquent sanitation fees. County Attorney Jamie Hatton told Meade the County Attorney’s office has made a serious effort to collect fees and that he often prosecutes sanitation delinquents for an entire day in District Court.
“We try to get the bills paid,” said Hatton. “Some days the (court) docket is full all day.” He added that although non-payment of sanitation fees is a crime in Kentucky, it is not the County Attorney’s Office’s intention to put people in jail for nonpayment.
Meade was escorted from the meeting by Letcher County sheriff ’s deputies after he interrupted Judge Ward several times after Frazier’s comments. Ward first gaveled Meade down, but after Meade continued to talk, Ward asked that he be removed from the courtroom.
Whitesburg Attorney James D. Asher presented the court with information that he believes could prove to be very beneficial, if not immediately, in the future. Asher, who also served two terms as Whitesburg mayor, told the court he was speaking as a taxpayer and that he had done some research on county taxing districts. Every year, the court approves its annual budgets and tax rates, but other than that the court has little authority over running the day-to-day operations. The districts in question were the Letcher County Public Library, Letcher County Health Department, the Letcher County Extension Office, and the Letcher County Soil and Water District. Asher said that by any standard, the four districts’ tax increases from 2014 to 2015 were exorbitant and added that the four districts have surpluses that total about $3.5 million collectively.
Asher said that by Kentucky law, none of the taxing districts should carry an operating surplus and no surplus at all except for special accounts to pay off property, such as the Letcher County Courthouse Debt Service Account that holds funds for servicing the debt on the courthouse.
Asher told the court the tax increase for the county Library Board had been 12.76 percent on real property and 67 percent on personal property, and it carries a “rollover” or surplus of $1,056,726. The Extension Office had an increase on real property of 16.66 percent, and an increase on personal property of 72.282 percent, with a rollover of $475,000. Asher also said the Letcher County Health Department’s rollover totals $1,665,332, and the Soil and Conservation Distract has a rollover of $148,623.
Fleming told Asher that the seemingly large tax increases were the result of drastically lowered overall property tax evaluations in Letcher County and that the districts had taken the state’s compensation rate. Asher suggested that the court meet with the respective departments’ boards and discuss the tax increases and the surpluses they each carry.