Signs of hard fiscal times to come were plentiful at the March meeting of the Letcher County Fiscal Court as County Treasurer Phillip Hampton made an ominous prediction near the end of the Monday meeting. Judge/Executive Jim Ward told the court that Letcher County’s State Road Aid had been reduced by approximately $200,000 from last year’s allotment of more than $800,000. Ward explained that the road allotment came from a combination of gasoline taxes and other fees, all of which were down for the previous year.
“I have a feeling that all state funding will be down this year, everywhere,” said Hampton.
The court also voted to close out Sheriff Danny Webb’s 2010 budget, which includes a deficit of just over $182,000, which is accounted as a debt to the court. Fifth District Magistrate Wayne Fleming asked the court to consider forgiving the debt, but Hampton and County Attorney Jamie Hatton both advised the court that the matter would require further study before any such arrangement could be made. Fleming withdrew his motion and said he would revisit the matter after both men had researched the possibilities. Fleming and Ward both said they felt that repaying the debt would place a hardship on the sheriff ’s office and they doubted it could be repaid in the current economic climate.
Sheriff Danny Webb told the court the debt had come from hazardous duty retirement and other insurance payments his office had assumed from the court in 2009. Webb said he has already taken measures to keep the debt from growing and said if the court does forgive the debt, it will be unlikely to occur again. He said two of his deputies will be going to the next Kentucky State Police Academy training class and he will have to hire and train two new officers, who will not participate initially in the hazardous duty retirement program.
The fiscal court had paid the insurance and hazardous duty retirement pay fees for the sheriff ’s department until a special called meeting to review the budgets of county agencies held in January 2009. At that time, Sheriff Webb and Judge Ward presented an agreement for the sheriff ’s office to assume the responsibility of paying for hazardous duty retirement pay and health insurance for staff and deputies. Only sworn officers receive hazardous duty retirement and both Ward and Webb said at that time that they disliked being forced into the new arrangement, but that lowered state allocations had given them no other choice.
In that meeting, Ward agreed that the court would provide $150,000 to the department and the sheriff ’s department agreed to pick up hazardous duty retirement pay and health insurance. However, Ward said the $150,000 would not be immediately available but the sheriff ’s department could present bills to the court and it would pay up to $150,000. At the insistence of County Treasurer Phillip Hampton, Ward asked that a motion be made to approve the funding with the caveat “if funds are available,” meaning that if any further cuts for the county came from the State of Kentucky, they would have to go back to the bargaining table.
Since that agreement was made, state funding has been cut to law enforcement agencies and to county governments as well. Coal severance tax allocations have been reduced drastically due both to lowered production and to legislative changes and the Letcher County budget has been reduced by approximately 25 percent. The sheriff ’s office has already reduced staff in its dispatcher’s office and is keeping police cruisers well past the time they would normally be replaced.
Patience may have paid off for the Letcher County Planning Committee in the county’s attempts to see that a federal prison is located here. Committee member Elwood Cornett told the court that after two years of waiting on the U.S. Bureau of Prisons (BOP) to make a decision as to whether it will locate a federal penitentiary in Letcher County, things have begun to move at an accelerated pace.
Cornett said that after a lengthy waiting period during which a reconnaissance study (Phase I) was conducted by the BOP, Phase II will move quickly. Cornett said the Bureau has hired TEC, a multi-national consulting company located in York, Penn., with expertise in engineering, environmental management, architecture, planning, infrastructure, and energy, to oversee Phase II. TEC has contracted with Marshall-Miller Associates of Lexington to conduct a feasibility study, which will include core drilling samples on all four proposed sites to determine the ability of the ground to support the weight of a prison building. The study will also involve a fly-over to get fresh aerial photos of each site along with further soil testing.
A cultural resources study will also be conducted on archeological sites. Cornett gave examples such as Indian graves and other Native American artifacts. He said the feasibility study will be “folded” into an environmental impact study that will be next in line. Cornett said it will be more expensive to build in Letcher County because of the mountainous terrain, and the site needs to have ready access to infrastructure such as roads, water, sewer, and electrical utilities.
Cornett told the court that although one site in Payne Gap was initially ruled out because of ownership problems and other issues, all four will be studied equally. He added that during the lengthy period of Phase I, a BOP employee told a group including Judge/Executive Jim Ward that the Bureau of Prisons is committed to build a federal penitentiary in Letcher County. Economic Development Director Joe DePriest thanked the fiscal court and the planning committee for their patience and commitment to see the project through.
In other business, gas companies with overweight drilling rigs and others wishing to haul overweight loads on Letcher County roads will now have to come before the fiscal court to make their case and to allow for property owners to have a public forum to make their case as well. As the meeting was concluding, Second District Magistrate Terry Adams asked Judge Ward how the decision-making process was being handled and Ward replied it was being done through his office on a case-by-case basis. Ward said that Kentucky law gives county governments the option of conducting the deliberations through the judge’s office or doing it in an open meeting of the county’s governing body. Adams then moved to conduct further deliberations in fiscal court meetings.
Adams told Ward his motion was intended to give landowners a forum to bring questions and problems before the court. The court voted four to two in favor of Adams’s motion with Ward and Third District Magistrate Codell Gibson voting no and Adams, along with Fleming, First District Magistrate Bobby Howard, and Fourth District Magistrate Keith Adams voting yes.
“I think they need to come before the court,” said Adams. “So landowners can come here with their grievances.”
“I think that’s a big mistake,” said Ward. “It was a big hassle before. It’s worked well this way.”
The court also voted to establish a threeman committee to look at possibilities to decrease sanitation costs. Judge Ward told the court that tipping fees will go up drastically this year and that, along with other increases such as fuel costs, could add as much as $20 a month to sanitation fees for county customers. Ward said although the county is already losing money on sanitation, he did not feel that kind of increase would be possible in Letcher County and he asked Magistrates Fleming, Gibson, and Terry Adams to look at ways to reduce costs and to report back to the court. Keith Adams also volunteered but County Attorney Hatton said that having four magistrates on the committee would constitute a quorum and would require meetings to be conducted under the Kentucky Open Meetings Law.
The court also accepted budgets from County Court Clerk Winston Meade and Jailer Don McCall. The budget for the county court clerk’s office is $6,024,000 in receipts, and $6,018,418.14 in expenditures, with a balance left over of $5,541.86. The jail budget for total Jail Fund appropriations is $979,325. Judge Ward praised McCall for presenting a budget that is lower than last year’s budget of $999,691, which was $46,000 less that the 2009 budget. Ward also asked if new Kentucky sentencing laws would help the jail, but McCall said it probably would add to the costs. McCall said that at this time, county jails are paid $32 per day for housing state prisoners, but as they are released under the new guidelines, they will probably be re-arrested later and be classified as county prisoners and county governments will then have to bear the cost of housing and feeding them.
The court also voted four to two to approve change orders on the county recreation center, with Magistrates Terry Adams and Wayne Fleming voting no. Codell Construction Site Manager Rusty Evans told the court the change orders resulted from an oversight in the original bids and from the unusual event of the state forcing the company to adhere to a plumbing code that was not in effect when the plans were approved in Frankfort. Evans said the original bid hadn’t included some caisson foundation work that was necessary to ensure the stability of the building. The other was from the state plumbing inspector who insisted that a modification be made to sinks that had not been part of the state code when the plans were approved. The change orders cost just over $38,000 together.
The court also approved a temporary right-of-way for American Electric Power to run lines to the Ferus Plant at the Gateway Industrial Park. Judge Ward told the court the right-of-way approval was necessary to get electrical power to the Ferus Nitrogen Extraction Plant and that he had to put his own personal feelings about AEP on hold because he is very enthusiastic about Ferus and the possibilities its offers to the future of the county. Fourth District Magistrate Adams, who was one of the more vocal members of the court in speaking out against AEP rate hikes at a recent special meeting, made a motion to demand that AEP representatives come before the court to ask for the right-of-way, but Ward said that would hold up the installation of power lines to Ferus and Adams’s motion died for lack of a second.
The court also passed a resolution to allow the Letcher County Tourism Commission (LCTC), in cooperation with the Department of Transportation, to place signs designating tourism attractions within Letcher County. Tourism Commission Chairman Dr. David Narramore of Whitesburg told the court the signs will be strategically placed along US 119, US 23, and Highway 15. Magistrate Fleming asked Narramore to make sure the Union Hall, at Jenkins on Brickyard Street and Church House Hollow, is listed as a historical building and Narramore said he believes it is already listed but he will make sure.
Narramore also told the court that the City of Whitesburg and LCTC will conduct a public meeting to seek comments concerning the renovation of the former Daniel Boone Hotel in downtown Whitesburg. The meeting will be held at 6:30 p.m., Thursday, March 31, in the upstairs community room at Whitesburg City Hall. Narramore also asked vendors to participate in the Letcher County Farmers’ Market so there be enough produce on sell from June through September, and added that the focus on the Heritage Trail will be changed from a walking trail to a biking trail for mountain bikes.
In other business brought before the Letcher County Fiscal Court:
• The court voted to accept the Kentucky Transportation Cabinet’s County Road Cooperative Contract Resolution for Fiscal Year 2012.
• The court voted unanimously to approve the revised language in the county’s Sanitation Ordinance to define curbing and to require that garbage be curbed.
• The court voted unanimously to extend its contract with Whitesburg Appalachian Regional Hospital for Drug Screening.
• The court voted unanimously to designate April as Pride Cleanup Month.
• The court voted to name the following roads and bridges in honor of Letcher County veterans: The bridge at Whitco for Tech 4 William Merriell Pennington; bridge at Highway 931/588 Intersection in Cowan for PFC. Jack W. Hughes, killed in action in the Korean War; to dedicate, but not rename Henry Hutton Road in honor of Cpl. Willis Hawley, U.S. Marine Corps; to name the road at the mouth of Dunham (Hwy. 3409) to Dunham Park in honor of Staff Sergeant Ivory “Dee” Conley, U.S. Army Air Force, World War II; and the bridge across from the Burdine Post Office for Sergeant Greg Hayes, U.S. Air Force.
• The court accepted identical low bids of $450 per body from Letcher Ambulance Service and Everidge Funeral Home to transport bodies to Frankfort for autopsy. The services will alternate.
• The court accepted two bids for expanding the Letcher County Veteran’s Museum from Red Black and Gary Stidham and from Blair Real Estate and asked the Veterans Museum Committee to meet with each bidder to give the exact specifications of what it wants to see before deciding on a winning bid.
Bank balances for Letcher County agencies as of March 18:
• General Fund $677,259.58
• Road and Bridge Fund $620,677.78
• Jail Fund $117,962.07
• LGEA Fund $1,276,202.76
• Forestry Fund $10,929.68
• Letcher County Public Courthouse Corp. Funded Depreciation Reserve Account $526,466.37
• Letcher County Public Courthouse Corp. Debt Service Account $64,095.52