A special meeting of the Letcher County Fiscal Court turned controversial late last week when Judge/ Executive Jim Ward accused District Two Magistrate Terry Adams of voting against bringing new jobs to Letcher County. At the same time, Ward declined to name the company that is interested to locating on county-owned property at Isom.
The business makes wood pellets that can be mixed with coal for power plants. Ward said he is afraid the company would lose state-funded incentives it hopes to receive if it is named prematurely.
Three men sat separately from the court as the Jan. 31 meeting got underway. One was Dave Sizemore, owner of Process Systems and current leaseholder of the old South East Coal Co. tipple at Isom, which is now a county industrial site. Ward said the other two men could not be identified because the company has applied for state business incentives.
One of the Virginia-based company’s representatives said the firm manufactures “replenished carbon utility grade concentrate” for use in power plants and uses scrap wood such as treetops left over from logging and other discarded wood products to make wood pellets to mix with coal to make their product. He told the court that time is of the essence if the company is to locate at Isom because contracts for its biomass products need to be filled in the very near future.
Magistrate Adams said it is his responsibility to consider the interests of the people he represents. Adams said he is concerned about the impact of the business on the homes that surround the old tipple site, where he said there have been previous traffic and dust problems associated with activity there. He said between 15 and 20 homes would be directly affected.
Ward replied that the project could bring between 20 and 30 jobs and added that since the county has been hit so hard in the reduction in mining jobs it is vital that the economy be diversified. He said that if the state grant is awarded, it will require that the jobs pay a good rate and the court and the company would only have a short time to complete the deal.
“So the people don’t really matter?” asked Adams.
“Of course they matter,” said Ward. “But jobs matter too, and the economy maters.”
Sizemore told the court that it is well known that coal in Letcher County and much of the surrounding region is about mined out and costs considerably more per ton to mine than coal in other areas. He said the jobs lost in mining have to be replaced and we need the company to locate here. The company’s second representative said he believes the site would actually add coal jobs because Letcher County coal could be mixed with the wood pellets. Trucking jobs would also be created, he said.
Magistrate Fleming told Ward that the proposal had only been introduced to the court members the previous evening and said he would like to have more time to look at the company’s record as a corporate neighbor and see how the people in the immediate area felt about it.
“My problem is, neither these people nor you (Ward) made this decision to locate here yesterday,” said Fleming. “I think we should give the people of the county a chance to let us know their feelings on it. Why can’t you give us little more information?”
“I didn’t want to do anything to jeopardize their Kentucky incentive,” said Ward.
Fleming replied that if secrecy is required to get business incentives through the state government, “that’s pretty pitiful.” He added that he would like to see such a project succeed here, “But I don’t know anything about you all.”
“We’re voting to re-do the lease,” said Ward.
Fleming said if the county changes the lease, the court would be giving Sizemore the ability to dictate the terms and that Sizemore could allow the company to do what he wants. Ward then said a vote against re-negotiating the lease is a vote against jobs. Adams replied that the vote would simply be against locating the site at Isom.
The second representative said the company had spoken to “a previous judge” about using the site but had been told they could not put coal on it. He said that he had recently learned that a new administration might be willing to relax that restriction and said he had spoken to Ward about the possibility of locating in Letcher County “a couple of months ago.”
The representative told the court the company is not a fly by night operation but had long term ambitions for the location. He said it intends to stay at Isom for at least five years (the duration of the current contract) and hopes to stay longer. But he also said that if the court was not absolutely certain it wants to proceed the company would be welcomed elsewhere with open arms.
“If you’re not for it 100 percent, I’m ready to go to Perry County,” he said. “It has to be 100 percent or I’m not interested.”
Fleming said he would like to learn more about the process and the company and added that he didn’t agree with Ward’s statement that if the court didn’t vote immediately the jobs would be lost. Adams asked if there were no other suitable sites in the county, but Ward said the rail siding and large concreted area at Isom made it the most desirable one.
District Three Magistrate Codell Gibson then made a motion to give Ward and Letcher County Attorney Jamie Hatton the authority to negotiate the lease and sign the contract.
Magistrate Adams then made a motion to table the item until the court could get more information and look at other potential locations. Fleming seconded the motion by Adams, but it failed by a vote of four to two, with Ward, Gibson, Keith Adams and District One Magistrate Bobby Howard voting against it. Gibson’s motion then passed by the same margin with Fleming and Adams voting no.