Given the responsibilities that come with running county government, members of the Letcher County Fiscal Court often have to make controversial decisions that rankle some and please others.
Late last year, for instance, the fiscal court realized it had to take action to address a budget shortfall created by the loss of more than $1 million in annual coal severance tax revenue, some of which was used to help pay for the county’s senior citizens programs and some of which was used to help shore up county services that were said to be losing money.
Faced with a near total shutdown of the Letcher County coal industry that resulted in the end of large quarterly severance tax reimbursements from state government, the fiscal court voted November 16 to close all county-operated senior citizens centers and to offer seniors limited services inside the Letcher County Recreation Center in Whitesburg. The vote to close the senior centers came one week after the magistrates voted to suspend two separate $300 expense accounts they had been receiving for gasoline costs. In late December, the court took the added measure of closing the cash-strapped Letcher County Recycling Center at Cowan to save needed funds.
While none of the people affected by the reductions in senior services and the recycling center’s closing — particularly the hardworking and low-paid employees who lost their county jobs — were happy with the measures taken by Letcher County Judge/Executive Jim Ward and the majority of the five magistrates who make up the fiscal court, many citizens were willing to give the court the benefit of the doubt, if for no other reason than because the magistrates showed they were also willing to make sacrifices by cutting out their own expense accounts, which totaled $36,000 a year.
That benefit of the doubt lasted less than a month, however, after a deeply divided fiscal court voted 3-2 on January 18 to reinstate both expense accounts, one of which appears to be illegal even though it was approved years before the current magistrates took office.
Unless you’ve been in hiding for the last 16 days, you know by now that the fiscal court’s decision to reinstate the two expense accounts will easily go down as one of if not the most unpopular action taken by the fiscal court during the modern history of Letcher County. (The Kentucky Constitution created fiscal courts in 1891; Letcher County was formed in 1842.)
As a contributor to The Mountain Eagle’s reader comment line “Speak Your Piece” says elsewhere in this week’s edition, “Wherever you go around the county — fast food places, coffee hangouts, post offices, bars, and other gathering places — all you hear talked about is how the fiscal court closed the senior centers, slashed the sheriff ’s budget, laid off their constituents and neighbors, and then gave themselves pay raises.”
When the fiscal court convenes for its regular February meeting on February 15, Magistrates Keith Adams, Woody Holbrook and Bobby Howard will be given the opportunity to right a terrible wrong if they do what is right and rescind their votes of January 18. We know all three to be decent men and will be surprised if they don’t change their votes. Should none of those three magistrates choose to address the issue, Judge/Executive Ward should bring the matter up himself. And this time Ward should show the leadership he has shown he is plenty capable of by voting to repeal the reinstatements rather than abstaining. After all, which is harder for a county judge — telling senior citizens you are closing their longtime hangout places or telling three magistrates they will no longer be paid an exorbitant amount of expense money during a time when the majority of Letcher County residents are having trouble paying the high cost of their monthly heating bills?
As ill-advised as the court’s decision to reinstate the expense accounts was, it should be noted that at least one of the two accounts — the legal “committee expense” account provided for under state law — may have to remain in place regardless of any action the court may take in the near future. That is because state law says compensation for magistrates cannot be changed during the court’s regular term of office. Instead, says the law, pay for magistrates must be set by the first Monday in May (a date that is before the primary election) in the year they are elected.
Even if they simply follow the law, the court could save taxpayers $18,000 a year and relieve some of the anger many citizens have toward magistrates whose unfortunate actions appear to many as putting their own interests above the suffering of others.
We encourage Judge Ward and Magistrates Adams, Howard and Holbrook do the right thing and vote to do away with at least one of the two expense accounts.