To the Editor:
For any government entity — city, county, or otherwise — to succeed in a 21st century economy, elected leadership that is sensible, sophisticated, and deliberative must play a part. Unfortunately for Letcher County residents, magistrates representing District Two (Isom, Colson, Jackhorn) and District Five (Jenkins) are none of the above. Rather, they are dangerous, destructive, and completely out of touch, giving all of us an unwanted black eye.
At the April meeting of the Letcher County Fiscal Court last week, there was an abrupt change of course for District Two Magistrate Terry Adams and District Five Magistrate Wayne Fleming. After months and countless votes in opposition to the Letcher County Recreation Center, arguably one of the county’s most popular and successful public institutions, the pair decided “The Rec” wasn’t quite as bad as they’d thought after all. Apparently, it is now so good that it should offer every child in the county a free membership. What could be wrong with that?
Notwithstanding the cynical, Machiavellian attempt (impressive if not for its lack of subtlety) to have their opponents on the fiscal court — County Judge/ Executive Jim Ward, District One Magistrate Bobby Howard, District Three Magistrate Codell Gibson, and District Four Magistrate Keith Adams (all of whom have voted time and again to support the project from its inception) — register a vote that would undoubtedly be described as “a vote against children” in political attacks, the proposal is ill advised, ill timed, and just plain stupid. After all, Mr. Adams and Mr. Fleming have been saying for months that county taxpayers will be on the hook for The Rec if coal severance tax funds that are currently used to repay the loan that built it continue to dry up. If coal severance receipts continue to diminish and the county can’t manage its loan obligations without raising taxes, how then could it pay the additional cost in staffing and maintenance that will inevitably result at The Rec with an influx of some 3,000 new members who don’t pay anything?
The numbers don’t, can’t, and won’t add up. Derek Barto, who oversees The Rec as Director of Parks and Recreation for the county, told the court so. He went so far as to say that one of the primary reasons there is a membership fee in the first place is because it gives members ownership and causes them to take pride and responsibility in their facility. Thankfully, Mr. Ward, who seemed completely (and understandably) blindsided by the proposal, requested it be tabled for further review of its feasibility.
Without question, making The Rec free to every child in the county would be a laudable goal, if it weren’t for economic reality. There are no free lunches in the world; someone always has to pay, even for those who are eating for free. Mr. Adams clearly doesn’t understand that and Mr. Fleming, in his long tenure on the fiscal court, has certainly never demonstrated a mastery of basic economics fundamental to good governing. Perhaps he should move to Knott County or Venezuela where a lack of basic math skills is obviously no prerequisite for holding elective office. Indeed, if the county had a dollar for every time Mr. Fleming gassed on about “the poor people” in the county, perhaps the county’s coffers could sufficiently cover memberships for everyone in eastern Kentucky. Heck, it might not even have to worry about coal severance money running out.
One could turn a blind eye to all this foolishness if not for the underlying politics at play here. Unfortunately, the cynical strategy of distract and divide, masterfully employed by Dick Cheney, Karl Rove, & Co. in the 2004 U.S. presidential election, has now escaped Mr. Fleming’s toolbox. How else could one explain a man who says out of one side of his mouth that The Rec is a financial boondoggle while at the same time saying out of the other side that it should be free for all children? But more importantly, why create a problem begging for a solution so unnecessarily?
Mr. Adams and Mr. Fleming, much to their credit, have clearly discovered that if they can’t physically or financially destroy The Rec from the outside, they will employ a Trojan horse strategy and do it from the inside out. It goes something like this: overburden it with an added population it can’t handle without more funding, neglect to mention you would never approve more, then loudly and vociferously reiterate your expectation that it succeed. And when it fails, which it surely will, make certain to remind anyone who will listen (and tell them anyway if they won’t) that it was you who from the beginning had said that it would fail. This “I told you so” will surely be the icing on the cake.
Sadly, this episode will only raise Mr. Fleming’s profile among the proletariat, the bleeding hearts, and those for whom government is little more than a benevolent and deep-pocketed relative who never says no. At some point, however, if the patient is to live, the bleeding must be staunched. County government is rapidly approaching that point. For far too long, coal severance, to marginal net benefit, has funded the capricious, reckless, and foolish spending ways of county leaders. And what coal didn’t, federal and state government did. But the times, as Bob Dylan noted nearly five decades ago, they are a changin’. Old sources of revenue are drying up and we will be faced with a simple decision: sink or swim, survive or fail, but do it on your own.
As the time draws near for us to stand on our own, the current imbroglio of The Rec is only a symptom of a much larger and more pernicious disease. This county has serious problems that need serious solutions and we need serious leaders to supply them. What we don’t need is a couple of bloviating halfwits creating problems where they need not be while spouting economic populism without explaining how, and who, will pay for it all.
We can no longer tolerate such pandering to the lowest instincts (who turns down freebies anyway?). We are able to stand on our own, but when the time comes, will we?
William Banks is a freelance writer and editor.