Whitesburg KY

Jenkins council urged to protest UPike proposal

The Jenkins City Council has been asked to join Letcher County Judge/ Executive Jim Ward and District Five Magistrate Wayne Fleming in condemning a proposal to turn the private University of Pikeville into a state-funded university.

Fleming addressed the council at its February meeting and said Ward had joined a number of eastern Kentucky Judge/Executives in condemning the plan, which would use $14 million in coal severance taxes each year to operate the university rather than funding it through the state’s general fund as other statesupported universities are funded.

Fleming acknowledged the need for a state-supported college in southeastern Kentucky, but said it was unfair to expect eastern Kentucky counties to bear the burden of funding it when other state universities are funded by the general fund. Most coal counties are already cash strapped and facing reductions in coal severance taxes due to cutbacks in coal production caused by the unseasonably warm winter. Fleming said most of the fund will come from multi-county tax funds which allow for more creative funding of projects that will benefit several counties.

“They want to take $14 million a year for 10 years,” said Fleming. “It would wipe out most of the multicounty severance tax money. I’m opposed to it. I don’t think it’s right that other colleges receive state funds but the University of Pikeville would be funded by coal severance taxes. We will have very little in coal severance taxes left.”

Coal severance taxes are dispersed through the Local Government Economic Development Fund (LGEDF), which was created through the 1992 law establishing coal severance taxes as a revenue sharing program to provide coal-producing counties with a way to diversify their economies. Regular or single county coal severance taxes are generally designated for infrastructure improvements such as water line extension projects, although the law originally limited coal severance funds to be used for industrial park development and regional parks and incentive grants. One third of the coal severance taxes are set aside for multicounty use. The Governor’s Office for Local Development oversees the distribution of coal severance tax funds.

“We’re supposed to get 50 percent, but they (the state legislature) take $19 million off the top out of our portion,” said Fleming. “You should let your legislator know how you feel.”

Jenkins Mayor G.C. Kincer suggested that council members take the matter under advisement before issuing a statement. Several council members also weighed in on the topic. Councilman Rick Damron suggested the state take that portion of coal severance taxes that goes to Lexington and Louisville through the General Fund and use it for the University of Pikeville. Rebecca Terrill Amburgey added that she didn’t think the state should take funding that is being used for badly needed infrastructure away from eastern Kentucky counties. Fleming told the council members they should act fast if they want their opinions to be heard, because the issue will be addressed before the General Assembly session ends in April.

The Letcher County Fiscal Court has worked with surrounding counties to obtain multi-county severance funds on a number of occasions, most notably $1 million for the Letcher County Career Center, which is nearing completion on the campus of Letcher County Central High School. Other projects for which multi-county funding has been requested include a regional animal shelter in Perry County, an industrial park along US 460 in Pike County, $90,000 for the Challenger Learning Center in Perry County, an extension of Bluegrass Hospice in Perry County, a water tank for Gateway Industrial Park in Jenkins, and $500,000 for an airport in Letcher County.

A contingent from Jenkins Independent Schools also attended the council meeting to report on progress made in the last year and to explain a plan to obtain state funding for a new school building to house the entire K-12 system under one roof. School Superintendent Deborah Watts said the cost of needed repairs on the system’s three campuses (McRoberts and Burdine Elementary Schools and Jenkins Middle High School) would cost nearly as much as a new single unit school to house up to 800 students. She said the district would still have three aging buildings if the repair option is pursued.

Watts told the council the system was classifi ed as a Five (the lowest classification) under the state building designation until a new classifi cation system was put in place that takes technology infrastructure into account. She said because Jenkins has spent a large amount of money implementing state-of-the-art technology and required infrastructure it has gone up under the new classification system, but added that it doesn’t mean the buildings are any better or cost any less to maintain. She said the main reason the Jenkins School Bord would like to see a new school is for improved academics.

“We feel like if we were in one building, we would be better off academically,” said Watts. “We could work better with all our kids under one roof. We would be more efficient, and we could pool resources academically and be more cost efficient.”

Watts cited problems with heating and air conditioning in the current buildings as well as problems with roofs and other structural deficiencies. She said the system would save money on utility and maintenance costs with a new school and added that it would be a tremendous asset for the city. She said the district cannot afford to build the building, which she said would cost an estimated $25 million, but added that the state has expressed an interest in funding new schools in districts with decaying infrastructure.

Council Member Amburgey asked Watts if the district would raise already high school taxes to help pay for the building, but Watts said the cost to construct a new building will be borne by the state. Watts added that if the new school has the positive effect she envisions, it could actually lead to a lower tax rate by making Jenkins a more desirable city and by attracting new business and residents.

“The school tax raise last year hurt the city,” said Amburgey. “People don’t want to move to the city because of the high tax rates now. If the school is approved would they stay high?”

“We’re not asking for a tax hike to build it,” said Watts. “But we have to have local dollars to justify SEEK funding.” SEEK (Support Educational Excellence in Kentucky) is a state formula for distributing funding for schools throughout the state. “If a new school brought new people and new business in,” said Watts, “it would reduce tax rates.”

“I’ve never seen taxes go down,” said Amburgey. “Taxes will be the biggest question. People need to be assured that taxes will not go up to pay for a new school.”

In response to a question from Council Member Carol Anne Litts, Watts said the board would like to see a new school centrally located within the city if it is feasible, but said that until funding is secured, no planning on building sites will be done.

“It will take outside funding, but there is money available for deteriorating schools,” said Watts. “We’re on a list of aging and deteriorating schools. We’ve generated as much as we can locally. We would need their (state) assistance. Our need is great.”

In other business, the council received bad news on water losses. The city lost 10,075,000 gallons of treated water in January, out of a total of 13,889,000 total gallons produced, for a loss of 73 percent. Of that loss, 2,830,000 gallons were accounted for, leaving an unaccounted for loss of 7,245,000, or 52 percent. High losses are expected to continue until the city waterline replacement project is complete, replacing all water lines in the city and cutting water off to old lines including some of the original lines laid when the city was built in 1912 and others that are still active but serve no houses or businesses. Many of those lines just run city water into the ground and are not listed on maps or charts.

Matt Curtis of Nesbitt Engineering reported on water and sewer projects in the city as well as the Payne Gap Project, which will extend lines from Payne Gap to Kona and serve more than 500 homes. Jenkins is administering the Payne Gap Project, which will be paid for primarily through funds from Abandoned Mine Lands, and will turn the lines over to the Letcher County Water and Sewer District upon completion. The city will sell water to the county through a master meter placed at Payne Gap. Construction is underway on the Payne Gap Project.

Curtis told the council that Phase III of the city Waterline Improvement Project is ready to go to bid and the council approved his request to advertise for bids when permission is received from the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s Rural Development Agency, which is the prime funder. Phase III will serve Lakeside and the surrounding area. Phase III moved ahead of Phase II because the original Community Development Block Grant that funded Phase I had to be closed out and a new CDBG proposal submitted for Phase II. The grant application has been submitted and easements have been obtained for Phase II.

Mayor Kincer presented the council with drawings of the proposed city swimming pool and kiddy splash park and said the city is currently negotiating with TECO (Premier Elkhorn Coal Company) for the preferred location near the old Elkhorn Country Club clubhouse. Kincer said he hopes to find a way for the city to use a “big field” near the site for the pool. He said at present there is nothing for young people to do in Jenkins in the summer and he hopes to be able to fast track the project.

Kincer also said that the city has made an offer to the Bert Fields heirs on the family property near the Jenkins High School football field and said he hopes to use the property for parking for football and softball games. Councilman Damron added that a second softball field which could be located on the property would allow Jenkins to host district tournaments and still have adequate parking.

In other council business:

• The council voted unanimously to accept a $1,006.99 bid from Randy Blair for a 1989 Ford F-350 truck which was declared as surplus. A second bid was placed by Phillip Griffin, but Blair submitted the high bid.

• Kincer said Intermountain Cable’s rates for have gone up, but added that the city has no ability to influence rates and no action was taken. However, Kincer did say that a new franchise agreement will be coming up soon and the council is free to pursue other options at that time. Rates for basic cable were raised from $20.85 to $22.85 and from $35.95 to $41.40 for expanded programming. Rate hikes will go into effect March 1. WVAH Fox 11 (Huntington and Charleston, W.Va.) may be dropped in Letcher and Wise counties if the station and cable company do not reach an agreement.

• The Jenkins Police Department received 202 complaints in January and issued 19 citations. Officers made 14 arrests, served six warrants, and issued 12 warnings. They also worked two injury collisions and 12 motorist assistance calls.

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