No valentines were exchanged at the February14 meeting of the Letcher County Fiscal Court. Instead, the meeting began with differing opinions on the proposed re-writing of a lease governing an old South East Coal Co. tipple site at Isom and ended with accusations that county-owned-and-operated television Channel 98 is being used for political purposes.
Channel 98, referred to by man as “the government channel,” airs fiscal court meetings as well as other local government meetings and events in Letcher County, such as Jenkins Days and Mountain Heritage festivals.
As the meeting was coming to a close after a contentious discussion over the proposal made by Refuel Carbon to sublease the countyowned tipple site at Isom, District Two Magistrate Terry Adams told the court he wanted to make a motion to prevent Channel 98 from being used for political campaigning. Adams said the government channel is being used to further the campaigns of some county officials.
“They follow people around and pat them on the back,” said Adams. “They are using it to campaign. Do the meetings, but no commentary.”
District Five Magistrate Wayne Fleming seconded the Adams and the order of the subsequent vote set off yet another controversy as Fleming asked County Attorney Jamie Hatton for an opinion as to whether the order of voting on mo- tions brought before the court was mandated by state law or county ordinances. Hatton replied that he had researched the matter and that while Roberts Rules of Order are the standard for court meetings, he had found nothing to determine the order of the vote. Fleming replied that past administrations had voted with the judge voting last, but that Ward is now voting first. Fleming and Adams indicated they believe Ward has started voting first to influence the votes of some of the court members.
That claim brought strong denials from District Four Magistrate Keith Adams and District Three Magistrate Codell Gibson, both of whom said Ward has no influence over their votes. District One Magistrate Bobby Howard said he always votes in the manner that represents the best interest of his constituents.
“It has the potential to influence the court,” Terry Adams of Ward voting first.
“I’ll vote first again,” said Ward after Adams introduced the motion concerning campaigning on the government channel. “Yes.” Keith Adams abstained. The others voted yes and the motion passed 5-0.
The total budget for the current fiscal year for Channel 98 is $55,190, covering operating expenses of $20,000 and salaries totaling $35,190 for two employees, producer Rick Hall and part-time cameraman Jamie Hall.
The issue of the sublease for Refuel Carbon was addressed earlier in the meeting when Lance and Edith Breeding, who live in a home behind the tipple site currently occupied by Process Systems, said they felt that their right to live in peace and enjoy their home would be violated if the plant, which processes scrap wood products into wood pellets, is permitted to locate so close to where they live.
Lance Breeding said there had not enough information made available to the public on the issue, and added that while he has worked all his life and supports bringing in jobs as much as anybody in the county, there is also a strong possibility that it could impact his home and family life. Edith Breeding said she and her husband live directly behind the site. She said they enjoy living there. “No one has a right to take that from us,” Mrs. Breeding said.
Ward said his intention had been to create an open door to entice businesses to locate their operations in Letcher County to make up for the large number of coal mining jobs that have been lost. He said the county desperately needs new sources of jobs and in order to attract them they need to be business friendly and look at other sources of employment besides coal mining.
Terry Adams said that most of the people who live close to the Process Systems site are very concerned about the idea of putting the pellet producing operation there and added that he is not against bringing jobs into the county, but he is against putting them in a residential area in Isom.
Magistrate Fleming said that Judge Ward had criticized both himself and Adams over their decision to vote against re- doing the lease on a round-table show on Channel 98 and that nothing about the special called meeting held on January 31 had made much sense. He said if Ward had checked the story told by representatives of Refuel Carbon, he would have found that their claims did not add up.
Fleming said that the two men who represented Refuel Carbon had threatened to take their business to Hazard if the court was not unanimous in approving the company’s request to renegotiate the lease. He said that he had called the Perry County judge/executive’s office and had been told that the men had been going around unsuccessfully in Perry County for six months looking for financing, using letter of credit from a Korean bank.
“They have a $5 million letter of credit from a Korean bank,” said Fleming. “I don’t know if it is from North or South Korea, but the banks (in Perry County) have refused to take it.”
Fleming also criticized Ward for not giving the court enough information about the company or enough time to learn about it. He said Ward had given the magistrates the information only 30 minutes before he asked them to make a decision. Ward said the vote had not been to allow Refuel Carbon to actually locate in Letcher County, but to change the lease to allow Doug Sizemore, owner of Process Systems, to negotiate a sublease for an alternative use for the property.
“That’s not what you told us,” said Fleming. “Then you went on Channel 98 and told people we were against jobs.”
Fleming said he had also checked the telephone number and address the company had given and found that the phone number was for a mobile phone in Bluefield, Va., while the address was for Mountain City, Tenn. He said when he called the mayor of Mountain City, he was told that Refuel Carbon does not have any operations there. Fleming also said the number of jobs discussed at the first meeting was inflated from 20 to 300 by one of the company representatives.
“If it’s a good company, I will help to bring it here,” said Fleming, “But the company lied to you. You did wrong, Jim.”
Ward said he had no intention of writing a blank check to Refuel Carbon or anyone else and reminded the court that the question of allowing the company to locate here is in the very early stages. Ward also said the had not been aware of the company’s activities in Perry County, to which Fleming replied that Ward’s wife, Joan, an employee of the Kentucky Economic Development Cabinet, had been part of the negotiations in Perry County.
Ward said he does not discuss business with his wife when her job might overlap with his and said that he had not discussed Refuel Carbon with her. In a later conversation with The Mountain Eagle, Ward said he and his wife are very careful to avoid conflicts of interest between county business and the business of the Economic Development Cabinet and that her job requirements stipulate confi dentiality in those matters.
No further action was taken on the decision to amend the lease and County Attorney Hatton said the re-write is in its early stages.
Other residents of the affected area in Isom also spoke to the court, and all said they favor bringing jobs into the county. However, they also said it had taken them a long time to clean their homes and yards up from the dust and mud created by the South East operation and have enjoyed the relative quiet and lower traffic volumes since South East went out of business. The residents said they hope the county will look at other possible locations before deciding to allow any businesses that could cause similar problems to locate on the Isom site.
In other business, the court heard a report from Chuck Childers of the Kentucky Transportation Cabinet concerning the Kentucky Department of Highways Rural Secondary Roads program. Childers said that the DOT will be have $ 1,470,000 to work with and about $142,000 will come directly to Letcher County and the rest will be spent by the DOT. Fleming asked if Highway 805 would be included and Childers said Highway 805 is in another program area but it will be paved this summer if funds hold up.
Judge Ward also gave an update on the Jenkins School apartments, which held its grand opening recently. Ward said the apartments are ready for occupation and anyone interested should call (606) 832-2222 for information. Fleming asked the court to remember the contribution the late Paul Mason, who represented Letcher County in the General Assembly before he died, had made to keep the building from falling into total disrepair and allowing it to be preserved.
In other court business:
• The court voted unanimously to dedicate the following roads to Letcher County veterans: Kate Hollow road in memory of Staff Sergeant Willis B. Banks, U.S. Army; Chopping Brach across from McRoberts Community Center in memory of Specialist 4 Stanley Gibson; and Gallup Drive at UZ dedicated to Sergeant Jeffery Brown, U.S. Army, Gulf War.
• The Letcher County Recreation Center had a total income for January of $38,290.26 against expenses of $35,353.19, for a profit of $2,937.07