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Gas company apologizes for damage

A natural gas company drilling wells and constructing pipelines in Letcher County appeared before the Letcher Fiscal Court this week to apologize for damages to a county park caused by heavy equipment belonging to a subcontractor.

Kevin West of Equitable Production, a subsidiary of Pittsburghbased Equitable Resources Inc., attended the fiscal court’s January meeting on Monday to issue an apology for the destruction caused to the new Thornton Park. West told the court he was not there to make excuses, and said Equitable is ultimately responsible for everything done by it contractors. He said as soon as weather permits, Equitable will repair the damages.

District Five Magistrate Wayne Fleming asked West if the individuals responsible for the damage would be punished. West said some action would be taken, but declined to say what. Both Fleming and District Two Magistrate Archie Banks said the person or persons responsible for damaging park property should be fired as an example to others. Fleming said the court has had similar problems with gas companies in the past.

“I’ve been here 10 years,” said Fleming. “You’re not the first ones who have come to make excuses. It’s always the contractors. The buck stops with you. This court has worked with you better than any other court I’ve been on. For you to abuse that trust doesn’t speak very highly of y ou.”

West again said he understands that the company is responsible and that the problems will be corrected. Banks said the county will take action if there are similar problems in the future.

“Next time, we’ll own that truck,” said Banks. “Tell your contractors if they had called me I would have had the truck towed to the county garage.”

Letcher Judge/Executive Jim Ward agreed and said if he had known about the damages in time he probably would have had the tractor-trailer rig seized. Ward said the problem seems to be a failure of communications as much as anything. He held up a copy of last week’s Mountain Eagle and pointed to a picture of a large tractor trailer parked directly under a sign which clearly said no heavy trucks or equipment are allowed in the park.

“About in October, communications started to drop off,” said Ward. “That’s the key. I told you not to park on the blacktop again and we even put up signs. We called and said ‘no more’ and they got right back on it (the park). This court has worked well with gas companies, but we have to make you be good corporate citizens. Treat me as I treat you. It really disappoints me. We’ve made a special effort. I’ve got to put my name on these (road crossing requests from gas companies). It will be really hard for me to do that until you show me you will be good corporate citizens. We will take them one at a time. All you had to do is call. You knew what to do.”

Ward’s statement was in reference to a period before his administration when the fiscal court refused to sign agreements to allow gas companies to cross county roads or haul heavy equipment on county roads. He said the previous practice had stymied gas production in the county and that he had tried to work with gas companies to garner the benefits of gas production for county residents including severance funds and payments to landowners, as well as employment opportunities.

West said he could only answer for Equitable but in the future, the company will file regular reports with the court on its activities and stay in regular communication about any movements throughout the county. At the suggestion of Magistrates Banks and Fleming, he also agreed to put restrooms at the Thornton Park in addition to a gas tap when the repairs are made. Ward said it is a step in the right direction but it will be a while before he trusts them again.

“You will have to earn our trust,” said Ward. “And we will expect the park to be repaired.”

Sheriff Danny Webb also came before the court to clear up allegations which were made in an article that appeared in last week’s Letcher County News Press. Webb said the article, which concerned an agreement made between the court and sheriff ‘s department concerning hazardous duty retirement for deputies and health insurance, made it seem like he was spending money “like a drunken sailor” and he wanted to refute the allegations as well as to reassure Letcher County citizens that the Letcher County Sheriff’s Department will continue to patrol the county.

Webb told the court that like the County Court Clerk’s Office, the Sheriff’s Department is a fee department and can only estimate how much it will take in from taxes and other fees each year. He said his department has a tax collection rate of 94 percent and can count on getting about $280,000 as its share of county taxes. Webb said that when he was elected as sheriff, one of the promises he made was to have a real sheriff’s office and provide deputies to patrol the county and that he has tried to keep that promise.

Webb said the problem stemmed from sharp increases in health insurance and hazardous duty retirement pay for deputies. Before either Ward or Webb were in office, the fiscal court voted to pay the hazardous duty retirement but the increases had made it impossible for it to continue. At a special called meeting last week, Webb and the court ironed out an agreement that his office will pick up both the hazardous duty retirement pay and the health insurance in exchange for $90,000 from the court, in addition to $60,000 per year already allotted to the department from the road fund to supply two deputies specifically to patrol county roads. He said that agreement is workable but he wanted to reaffirm that he has already been forced to cut back on personnel but has managed to keep from cutting back on deputies.

Webb said he has had to cut back in the dispatch department and he wanted to make sure people understand what that means. He said at the called meeting he believes several people didn’t understand the different functions of his dispatchers and the 911 service but that the two have very different responsibilities. Webb said that 911 handles all emergency calls and the sheriff’s dispatcher handles complaints of a criminal nature regardless of their degree of importance and that they handled over 300 complaints after 2 a.m. last year. He also said that after discussing the matter with County Attorney Bolling, he isn’t sure he can legally cut the dispatchers because the courts require a trained person on call 24/7 to handle domestic violence situations.

“Our dispatchers are trained so that if a woman comes in at 2:30 in the morning beaten half to death, they can help her and get her to the right agency,” said Webb. “Mental petitions are another area where the sheriff’s department is the only one who can take care of that and take patients to the proper care.”

County Attorney Bolling agreed and said he and County Court Judge Jim Wood and Circuit Court Judge Sam Wright will have to meet to decide how to address existing court protocol which lists the sheriff ‘s dispatcher as the first contact source in domestic violence cases. Bolling said these cases mostly happen at night and the dispatcher is often the only trained officer available.

Bolling also told the court that since Webb, who retired as a captain and post commander with the Kentucky State Police, was elected sheriff, the department has assumed a mantle of professionalism that did not exist in previous departments. He said the level of service has made a tremendous difference in prosecutions and the willingness of victims and witnesses to come forward in court cases. Bolling praised the high quality of the deputy force and said the young deputies were some of the best he has seen and their high level of competence and professionalism is a big bonus to the courts and to the county.

“Danny Webb has made a tremendous difference in the court system,” said Bolling. “It’s amazing the difference in the commitment to participate in the courtroom process.”

Webb told the court his main purpose in coming before them was to reassure them and the citizens of Letcher County that as long as he is able, the level of police protection to county residents will not be diminished. He said if he is forced to take another budget cut he will adjust but he will do everything in his power not to cut patrols. Webb said that his deputies are already restricted to regular time with no overtime. He said if there is anything left over after the December audit he tries to distribute it to deputies as performance bonuses, which he said was referred to as raises in the News Press article.

Magistrate Fleming, who did not attend the special meeting because he had accompanied his wife to Lexington for surgery, told Webb that he does not want to see hazardous duty retirement for deputies cut and said he is very pleased with the performance of the department.

“I’m glad you didn’t cut benefits or hazardous duty,” said Fleming. “They deserve it. I want to make sure that doesn’t happen. It’s hard to keep good people.”

In other court business:

• The court voted unanimously to approve a grant application to the Recreational Trails Program for the county’s OHV Trail Development Project. After receiving the initial maps from Summit Engineering, which place the first trail head behind the old tennis courts at Fishpond Lake to minimize riding around the lake, the court adopted the resolution unanimously.

• The court voted unanimously to allow county residents to participate in the Kentucky Mine Subsidence Insurance Fund. Ward said the cost is $25.00 per year for $100,000 coverage and will go toward damage done by mine subsidence. For more information contact Judge Ward’s office.

• The court voted unanimously to repay an overpayment from the Sherriff ‘s Department of $120,062. 40. Deputy LaShawna Frazier, who performs bookkeeping for the department, said the error came from changes in accounting software which caused a double payment.

• The court voted unanimously to accept $65,000 from County Court Clerk Winston Meade as partial payment for the Final Settlement Amended Budget. Meade said that leaves a remainder of $5,817.87. Judge Ward asked Meade how much fee collections were down and Meade said about 33 percent, mostly in the fourth quarter, from lower levels of vehicle purchases, collection of delinquent taxes, and the lower values assessed to used cars by the state. Ward told the court this is an indication of how much their revenues for the coming fiscal year should be reduced.

• Representatives of the Battle of Leatherwood visited the meeting and brought a scale model of the CSS Hunley, the first submarine used in combat to sink a ship in United States history. The Hunley was recently recovered and a full size replica will be onsite October 23 – 25 at this year’s reenactment. John Back told the court that the original Hunley was 39 feet 10 inches long, four feet high, and 42 inches wide. He said it took brave men to enter into the craft and the commander, George Dixon was originally from Kentucky. Back said a $20.00 gold piece which had saved Dixon’s life at the Battle of Shiloh by turning a .58 caliber Minnie ball was found on the craft when it was recovered. The court voted to take $1,500 from tourism funds to help with costs for the reenactment of the Battle of Leatherwood. Magistrate Fleming praised the committee and said the combination of drawing tourists and providing a hands-on learning experiment for county students was an excellent way of acquainting people with the history of the country and the struggle and sacrifice made by those who defend the nation in the armed forces.

• Doris Adams and Ked Sanders of the Letcher County Tourism Commission told the court that the commission has been unable to meet and conduct business because they cannot get a quorum. Adams said they need to be able to get rid of members who do not attend meetings and get new ones. She told Judge Ward that there were no meetings from August to November due to lack of a quorum and said that some of the members have simply stopped coming to meetings. Sanders told the court the Tourism Commission will hold a meeting at the Letcher County Vocational School on Thursday January 22 at 6:30 p.m. which will be open to the public.

• Gary Rogers of the Letcher Fire and Rescue Department told the court that a building planned for Campbell’s Branch was situated in the flood plain and said the old Campbell’s’ Branch School will have to be used and reconfigured to accommodate the fire trucks and community center.

• Jim Scott of the Committee for a Better McRoberts approached the court and reported on recent activity at the McRoberts Community Center. Scott said that in completing recent work on the Toyota Center project, the committee spent slightly more than it had and asked the court for $2,034 to make up the difference. He said it was necessary to finish the work. Judge Ward told Scott that the court simply does not have any funds available at this time. County Treasurer Phillip Hampton echoed Ward and said that the budget is “tight, tight, tight.” Magistrate Fleming asked if the committee could make up at least $1,000 by picking up trash along highways with the Litter Abatement Fund. Hampton said the court had recently received an allocation for litter abatement and it could be used. Scott said the committee has a fundraising dinner the first Friday of the month and plans a Strawberry Festival as a fundraiser planned for May 2.

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