The Letcher County Fiscal Court voted this week to join a lawsuit that has been mounted by Pikeville Attorney Gary C. Johnson to recover funds from pharmaceutical companies that dumped excessive amounts of opiates in Letcher and other counties.
Letcher County Judge/ Executive Jim Ward told the court that Johnson has seven or eight counties that will participate in the suit so far and that any money that comes out of the lawsuit will be used to offset the actual costs of the drug epidemic, including jailing, treatment, and policing costs.
In September 2017, Kentucky Attorney General Andy Beshear announced the results of a request for proposals he issued for law firms to sue drug manufacturers for damages from opiates. Following the procurement process, Beshear contracted with four law firms. These included the Kentucky-based firm of former state Supreme Court Justice John Roach — Ransdell, Roach and Royse PLLC, and three national law firms — Morgan & Morgan, Motley Rice and The Lanister Law Firm — all with experience with consumer protection cases or direct experience in lawsuits against drug companies. Orlandobased Morgan & Morgan, has multiple offices in Kentucky and has represented cities and counties in West Virginia against McKesson and other drug wholesalers.
County Attorney Jamie Hatton told the court that it was a good move for the county to join in Johnson’s lawsuit, because awards from the state suits would be distributed by the Attorney General’s office and used to pay the attorneys and to offset state costs, making it uncertain how much would reach the county level. He said with the Johnson suit, awards would go to the counties that participate in the lawsuit and be used to offset costs directly borne by county government.
In other business, Judge Ward announced that John Motto of the Appalachian Relief Project has announced that it will work with people in the Craft’s Branch area and other parts of the county who experienced damage from recent flooding. The number to call is 696-335-2546. Ward said damages did not reach the level to qualify for Federal Emergency Management Agency help.
The court also got an update on progress in making broadband service available to Letcher County residents, including hard dates for Wi-Fi service in parts of the county and for the installation of the fiber optic “middle mile” that will allow internet service providers to connect to provide home service (the final mile) to county residents.
Holly Hopkins Scoville, Government and Resident Relations Manager for the Kentucky Wired Project, told the court that work is currently underway to install fiber optic lines in underserved areas of the state, and the contract for the installation states that the work must be finished by June 29, 2020. She said that at present 15 crews are at work hanging cable on existing poles or running cable underground where it is necessary and added that by the end of the summer, 150 crews will be on the job. Scoville said that after the fiber optic lines are all spliced, Kentucky will be first in the nation in broadband availability.
“The project is going, it is funded, and it is on track,” said Scoville. “This is the middle mile.” She said that installing the final mile will be up to individual Internet service providers, and added that Kentucky Wired is installing more line capacity than is currently necessary in order to provide for expansion in the future.
Harry Smith, Chairman of the Letcher County Broadband Board, returned bids to the court from the request for proposals that was issued following the March court meeting. Collins told the court that the Broadband Board is a final mile group and that the RFP will address the most underserved portion of Letcher County, in the Campbell’s Branch, Linefork, Ulvah, and Red Star area. This will be the first of three installations that will be necessary to address the needs of the most densely populated areas in the target area. The bids are for construction of a microwave tower with tower transmitters to cover a specified area that will serve several hundred homes and is estimated to cost about $75,000. At the March Meeting, Broadband Board member Roland Brown Jr. told the court it costs about $60,000 to install one mile of fiber optic cable.
Collins said the bids will be opened at the June meeting, and that once a bid is awarded, the contractor will have 90 days to connect its first customer. Collins said the board wants to have strong guidelines for affordable, effective, and available broadband service to the county and it is set all out in the detailed RFP. Roland Brown added that as soon as the first tower is installed, the board will begin its efforts to serve other underserved areas. He also said that since there be some new court members in November, he hopes the next court will be as willing to cooperate in the effort, which he called an “economic driver for the county.” Second District Magistrate Terry Adams, who is a member of the Broadband Board, said this is by far the hardest working and best organized board he has ever worked with.
County Attorney Jamie Hatton cautioned against moving to accept bids too quickly, saying the court will need to carefully and thoroughly examine the bids and not rush through them. He said it may require more than one meeting to select the best bidder.
The court also voted to approve renewing the current County Employee Health Insurance Plan. The plan, which comes through the Kentucky Association of Counties (KACO), will cost about $25,000 more than last year and was recommended by the Insurance Committee, which is composed of county employees.
Fifth District Magistrate Wayne Fleming said while he understands how difficult it is to get good insurance coverage, he would like to see lower deductibles. However, Fleming said that all insurance companies take advantage of people and added, “I hate insurance companies.”
Duran Sparkman, a Group Benefits Specialist with KACO, told the court that the most common illness county employees were treated for in the last year was cardio-vascular disease, and said this is not uncommon in this area. Sparkman said that Letcher County lies in what is called the “Coronary Valley,” due to the high incidence of coronary disease. The Coronary Valley extends from Pennsylvania to Alabama and hypertension (high blood pressure), diabetes, and cardiovascular illness are common throughout the region. Sparkman said that a Wellness Plan, which would include regular check-ups in doctors’ offices rather than going to the emergency room, nutritional advice, and exercise for county employees could help bring future costs down.
Judge Ward agreed and said that the court needs to better educate county employees on the importance of going to the doctor’s office for minor ailments rather than waiting until they get worse and then going to the emergency room, where treatment costs are much higher.
The court also voted to name the following roads in honor of Letcher County veterans: Cane Branch in Jenkins in honor of Master Sergeant Everett B. Vanover, U.S. Air Force (retired), and Tolson Creek Road off Highway 588 in Honor of Major General Dorotha A. Hogg and Master Sergeant Jeffery Hogg, both U.S. Air Force.
The court also voted to place the following names on the Memorial Board at Blackey: Private First-Class Victor Campbell, U.S. Army, World War II, and Petty Officer Third Class Dewey S. Parker, U.S. Navy, World War II.
Bank balances for county agencies as of April 30
• General Fund: $821,979.08
• Road and Bridge Fund: $901,518.01
• Jail Fund: $98,504.05
• LGEA Fund: $1,120,515.06
• Senior Citizens Fund: $227.46
• Forestry Fund: $18,951.41
• Letcher County Public Courthouse Depreciation Reserve: $10,252.61
• Letcher County Public Courthouse Debt Service: $255,055.46
Total of all funds : $3,227,003.14