Whitesburg KY

Proposed budget cuts would hurt badly here

Budget cuts proposed by the Trump White House would affect government, education and community development agencies at nearly every level in Letcher County, decimating some programs that rely on federal funds, officials in multiple local agencies and organizations said.

The proposed cuts would adversely affect schoolchildren, unemployed miners, college students, the elderly, nonprofit corporations and for-profit business, according to interviews with people familiar with the finances of agencies across the county. Many of the programs would be eliminated entirely.

Letcher County Judge/Executive Jim Ward said many of the programs being cut are economic development programs, and with unemployment already high and the county budget short, cuts would seriously damage the county. He said money for the Daniel Boone Hotel building renovations being done by the City of Whitesburg comes from the Appalachian Regional Commission, a program slated for elimination in the proposed budget.

“If that goes away, and they can’t keep funding that, it has a big effect on our tourism,” he said.

A $500,000 grant from the ARC to stabilize the building is expected to leverage $2 million in private investment in the 100-year-old hotel, create 23 jobs, and bring an additional 9,900 visitors a year to the county, according to a press release in January announcing the grant. Work is expected to begin this spring.

Ward said the money the White House is proposing to cut also important for infrastructure projects.

“If they do away with the ARC and Community Development Block Grants, we get a lot of our funding through those for water projects and sewer projects,” Ward said.

“We don’t get a lot through the ARC, but every little bit helps.”

U.S. Rep. Hal Rogers called the cuts “draconian, careless and counterproductive,” and said he will fight against any proposed cuts to the ARC. Sen. Mitch McConnell’s office and Sen. Rand Paul’s office could not be reached for comment, but McConnell said in Corbin over the weekend that “We are not going to allow any cuts to the Appalachian Regional Commission.”

Rogers also addressed some of the other proposed cuts, saying money for a prison to be built in Letcher County is still in the budget and the project is on schedule. “However, like other programs and agencies that have been proposed for reduction or elimination, I will work to protect funding for critical services, such as LIHEAP, and economic development opportunities as Congress continues the appropriations process for the rest of 2017 and fiscal year 2018,” Rogers said in a statement in response to questions from The Mountain Eagle.

County schools and the Jenkins Independent Schools would also be adversely affected, superintendents of the two systems said. Letcher County Superintendent Tony Sergent said the cuts would eliminate four 21st Century Learning Center Programs at Neon Middle School, Martha Jane Potter Elementary, Letcher Elementary and Letcher Middle School. The programs employ one director each, and serves a total of 185 school children a day. In addition, the school district provides free breakfast, lunch and dinner at the schools because there are many students who have nothing, or at least very little, to eat at home. While White House Budget Director Mick Mulvaney said those programs could not be shown to make a difference in children’s performance, Sergent disagreed.

“I think we have a lot of kids that don’t have what they need, and if kids don’t have what they need to eat, they’re not going to focus on school,” he said.

Beyond that, he said many of those who take advantage of the afterschool programs don’t have good home lives, and the afterschool programs provide then with “a safe, comfortable place” to do homework, receive tutoring, and have a meal before they go home.

While acknowledging there is a limit to what tax dollars can pay for, Sergent called the afterschool programs and the feeding programs, “a kind, caring thing to do.” If the programs are cut, it will also cause people providing services to be unemployed, he said.

“Those things will dramatically affect us,” he said.

In the Jenkins Independent School System, Superintendent Mike Genton said his district doesn’t have a 21st Century program anymore, but still offers extended school services after school, and gets federal money for several of its other program, including free breakfast and lunch.

“If that gets cut, it will definitely cause issues for us, because we’re a small district,” said Genton, whose district has about 450 students.

He’s also worried about the Charter Schools Bill that just passed the Kentucky Legislature, and the federal push for charter schools, which would be private organizations, but would receive tax money that would otherwise go to public schools.

“I feel like public education is under attack, and over the next 20 years, we’re going to see more efforts to privatize it,” Genton said.

Roadside Theatre, the travelling theater company founded by Appalshop in the 1970s, would also lose funding under the proposal, which would totally eliminate the National Endowment for the Arts. Dudley Cocke, who has been with Roadside since 1975, said the troupe gets about 10 percent of its money from the NEA currently.

“It’s not a huge percentage, but it’s important reputationally, and it helps leverage other money,” Cocke said.

When Broadway tickets can cost $800 and up, Cocke said theatre programs are often seen as elitist, but Roadside’s audience has always been the working class and lower middle class. Even the hit musical Hamilton, which drew Republican ire after actors came out after the play to address Vice President Mike Pence about the administration’s policies, started off in a nonprofit theater company that was created expressly to provide theater experiences to everyone.

Yet, the NEA has been a target of Republicans in Congress and the White House since the Reagan Administration, and Cocke said having to fight for the program is commonplace. He said he doesn’t view it so much as a budget question as a culture question.

“They look at it as liberal left-wing and they understand that whoever controls the culture controls the story the country tells itself,” he said.

He said the proposed elimination of the program has upset the nonprofits and philanthropists who give money to match money from the NEA.

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