The Letcher County Fiscal Court heard accusations of improper conduct levied against Judge/Executive Jim Ward by Fifth District Magistrate Wayne Fleming at its August meeting.
Fleming announced that he had sent two accusations to the Kentucky Attorney General’s Office and the Department for Local Government. He said that based on the reports he received, Ward was in violation of the fiscal court’s Administrative Code when he moved “Public Comment” to the last item on the agenda and that he was in violation of the personnel policy in the matter of discharging a county employee. Fleming said he wanted to address the matter of changing the agenda and would wait until after public comments for the second matter.
Ward said he did not believe he was in violation of the Administrative Code, which calls for Public Comment to be fourth on the agenda. Public Comment was listed as Number 4 on the agenda, under New Business. But New Business was listed as Roman Numeral IV behind the usual items of call to order, pledge of allegiance and prayer, minutes, judge’s report and committee reports. County Attorney Jamie Hatton said that the way Public Comment was listed on the August 19 agenda, it was out of place and that the court’s clear intent when it had drawn the code up was that Public Comment would be early in the meeting and be placed after minutes and committee reports.
Ward said he had no objection to moving Public Comment back, but his intention had been to keep meetings from lasting so long and to get to new business in a more timely manner. Fleming said he believed that placing the Public Comment last had a negative effect on the public and many were not willing to sit through the entire meeting to speak their piece. Fleming said if the five-minute time limit, which was agreed on by a previous court, was equally enforced it would keep comments to a manageable time.
At the close of the meeting, Fleming said he also had a report to the effect that Ward had violated the county personnel policy by changing the policy without a vote by the court. He said that in a recent decision to discharge a county employee, Ward had placed the position under those whom he has the ability to hire and fire without authorization. Ward said he had not changed the policy arbitrarily and dismissed Fleming’s statement, saying he had no idea what Fleming had told the Attorney General’s office, and without knowing that, he didn’t want to respond. Ward then asked for adjournment and Fleming said he was not satisfied with Ward’s response. However, Third District Magistrate Codell Gibson made a motion to adjourn and the meeting ended.
The court also heard more bad news on the financial front from County Treasurer Phillip Hampton. Hampton said that for the past few years, Letcher County had held relatively steady while surrounding county courts had faced severe setbacks that have resulted in layoffs of county personnel and cutting programs. However, Hampton said the hard times and cuts in coal severance tax receipts have caught up with Letcher County and it faces a grim year ahead.
“We’re $1 million down (in total funds) from where we started last year,” said Hampton. “We’re starting to catch up with other counties in hard times. We have about 50 percent less in coal severance deposits this year. We’re going to have to go to bare bones necessities.”
Judge Ward predicted that coal severance receipts will be down again next year as well and said he is getting ready to testify before the Kentucky Senate Appropriations Committee in an effort to get a more equitable distribution of coal severance tax monies, but that he doubts it will make a lot of difference with the many hands in the pot. Ward said the general public has several misconceptions about the distribution of coal severance tax funds, particularly the amount the coal producing counties receive.
“We’re lucky to get 17 percent,” said Ward. “Fifty percent goes directly into the general fund.”
Magistrate Fleming said the distribution scheme for coal severance tax funds is very convoluted and difficult to understand.”We don’t get what people think, we get a percent of a percent,” he said.
The discussion came after the court had voted unanimously to give $16,000 in coal severance funds to the Cumberland Valley Arts Council to pay a $9,000 debt the board had cosigned and to pay several other outstanding bills.
After Don Amburgey, who directs the council that produces the Little Shepherd of Kingdom Come outdoor drama in Jenkins, told the court of the situation, Fleming said he felt the court should advance the money since the debt was incurred and cosigned by members of the board, and the spending had been done under the belief that it would receive a significantly larger amount from coal severance taxes.
Judge Ward and Fleming both reminded Amburgey that the court had cautioned against reckless spending and both said this was probably the end of the line regarding money from the court for the foreseeable future.
In other business, Judge Ward reported that a meeting with Federal Bureau of Prisons officials had gone very well and that more than 450 people had attended.
He said that Letcher County at present is the only site under consideration for the location of a new prison, which is a favorable situation. Ward added that it will probably take about a year for the environmental impact study that just got underway to be completed.
David Narramore, chairman of the Letcher County Tourism Commission, presented the court with a tourism calendar that contains events for the next month. The Masters of the Mountains foot race will be held on Saturday, August 24, at the Little Shepherd Trail on Pine Mountain. The race begins at 8 a.m. and the entry fee is $55, $65 on the day of the race. Jenkins Homecoming Days will be held from August 22 to 24 with a free concert featuring Exile. A Mud Run is scheduled for Labor Day. For more information, contact Steve Burke at (606) 634-9253 or Jessica Brown at (606) 335-0566. Isom Days will be held August 28 to September 1 and the Letcher County Coal Miners’ Memorial Bluegrass Festival is scheduled for September 2 . The Heritage 2K Car show will be held September 6 to 8 and Neon Days is scheduled for September 13 and 14. The Carcassonne Community Center has a square dance on September 14, and a Bike Nite charity ride will be held September 21. The Mountain Heritage Festival is scheduled for September 23 to 28, with the Artwalk beginning September 26 at the Underground Gallery in Whitesburg.
In other court business:
• The court heard a plea from Billy K. Banks concerning a bridge at Gallup Drive. Banks told the court the bridge will not handle the weight of fire trucks loaded with water and said it leaves the homes on the other side of the bridge without fire protection. Banks visited the court in 2011 to make the same plea after his daughter’s home burned. Judge Ward said he has spoken with the Kentucky Department of Highways about the matter several times, but it is not on the list of bridges to be replaced at this time.
• Chris Yonts of Shelby Fork thanked the court and the Letcher County Water and Sewer District for water lines that have been extended into the community, but asked why the lines aren’t on the left side of the railroad tracks. Ward replied that the work is being held up by CSX Railroad over easements to bore under the right of way.
• The court voted unanimously to re-appoint Billy Stamper, Fred Webb, and Diane Adams to the Board of Directors of the Letcher County Water and Sewer District.
• The court heard the reading of Budget Amendments 1 through 6, which transferred carry- over funds from the previous fiscal year in the amount of $2,083,312.62 into county accounts. However, County Treasurer Hampton cautioned that a significant portion of this amount is already spent paying current bills. That amount includes $150,000 the court voted to add to the budgets of the Letcher County Sheriff ’s Department and Letcher County Senior Citizens at the June meeting.
Bank balances for county agencies as of August 14:
• General Fund $157,162.53
• Road and Bridge Fund $1,308.902.06
• Jail Fund $127,892.40
• LGEA Fund $933,690.83
• Senior Citizens Fund $13,646.84
• Forestry Fund $12,079.40
• Letcher County Public Courthouse Corp. Funded Depreciation Reserve Account $603,299.22
• Letcher County Public Courthouse Corp. Debt Service Account $64,020.80