Letcher County’s planned new recreation center will receive 30 percent of the $4 million in coal severance money scheduled to be returned to the county during the next two years.
At its February meeting this week, the Letcher Fiscal Court voted to spend $1.2 million on the $7 million center scheduled to be built in Whitesburg, with the bulk of the remaining $2.8 million going to support water projects, other parks and recreation projects, and fire and police departments. Letcher Judge/ Executive Jim Ward said the $4 million allotment is down $2 million from the last biennium.
District Five Magistrate Wayne Fleming told the court he was opposed to spending such a large chunk of the severance money on the recreation center, which will be built on a lot next to Dairy Queen in downtown Whitesburg.
“I know my statement won’t matter,” said Fleming, “but I have a problem with $1.2 million going to the recreation center.”
Ward told Fleming he had given the matter a lot of thought and came to the conclusion that the center is as important as any project on the list approved Monday night.
“I can’t think of a better thing than the recreation center that we can do for the county,” said Ward. “If it costs $600,000 a year, it is $600,000 a year. Right now, the young people in Letcher County have nothing to do.”
District Two Magistrate Archie Banks said he agreed with Ward, but added, “We have to pay for it. It’s a $7 million project and it will have to be paid for.”
In other bus iness, the court voted unanimously to approve a motion introduced by Magistrate Banks to authorize County Attorney Harold Bolling to investigate the quality of cable TV and broadband Internet service in the county.
The motion was approved after the court discussed problems Letcher County residents now face in obtaining quality Internet service. Magistrate Fleming brought up the issue and told the court that many residents do not have access to broadband for varying reasons, usually because their telephone or cable company does not off er broadband or will not run proper lines into rural areas. Magistrate Banks said the county needs a franchise arrangement to grant franchises to cable and Internet providers.
“TV Service raised their rates recently and nobody even knew that had gone up until they got their bills,” said Banks, referring to the Knott County-based cable company that serves much of Letcher County. “They have a lot of problems with reception too.”
Bolling said his office has received a number of complaints concerning TVS, but there is little the county can do under present circumstances.
“There are no existing franchises except with the cities,” said Bolling. “Nobody has an exclusive right to provide service and no franchises are guaranteed except in incorporated areas. They operate on their own with no grant from the county.”
Banks said he saw the matter as being two separate issues, Internet access and television. Banks said his problem with the existing arrangement is that the cable providers can raise rates at will with no one to tell them no.
Bolling agreed and said that at present there are no legal limits placed on the cable providers. He said cable companies are not operating under a franchise agreement so there are no protections for their customers outside the cities. Bolling added that in 2004 and 2005, several federal bills were proposed to regulate cable and to provide a tax on cable service but while there was a lot of discussion, he is not sure how the final bill was written.
“I hope we haven’t missed the boat,” said Banks.
“There are still some problem areas, rate increases and only serving who they want to serve,” said Bolling. “When they came through I had to run my own cable to hook into theirs.”
Magistrate Fleming said a lot of people who had been without cable service for 10 or more days during the December snowstorm had asked the cable companies for adjustments to their bills only to be told they could pay what they were charged or be cut off . Bolling said he would look into the matter and make recommendations to the court.
A delegation from Whitesburg Appalachian Regional Hospital visited the court to thank Ward and the magistrates for the county’s $100,000 appropriation to help build a new wing onto the hospital. WARH CEO Dena Sparkman told the court the money will go toward a three-to-one match, which means the hospital will receive $300,000 from other funders for the $100,000 from the court. Sparkman asked the court to provide another $100,000 from the next round of coal severance money but Judge Ward told her the next budgets would be very tight and said he hopes he can get an appropriation for ARH placed into the budget as a line item during the current General Assembly session.
Magistrate Fleming asked Ward if the court could make a commitment to ARH in the event money does become available. Fleming said he had spoken with 94th District State Representative Leslie Combs about funding the hospital recently. He told the hospital delegation that any extra money the court gets will be made available to them, but Banks added that right now the court is not able to make promises due to the financial shortfall in the state government.
The court voted unanimously to accept Sheriff Danny Webb’s amended budget for 2009. Deputy LaShawna Frazier presented the budget and told the court the department had an excess of $1,187.59, which she would normally have presented to them in the form of a check. However, Frazier said the department is unable to repay $66,413.87, which the court has already paid to the department’s retirement pay program so the money would be applied to that. She added that as soon as coal severance tax allotments were made and tax assessments come in, the amount will be repaid.
In other business:
• The court voted unanimously to accept Madden Lane into the county road system on the recommendation of County Surveyor Richard Hall.
• Jim Scott of the McRoberts Community Center Committee asked the court to designate McRoberts Community Center as a disaster shelter. Scott said the committee has made a commitment to provide whatever is needed to put it into compliance. Judge Ward said he will speak with Emergency Services Coordinator Paul Miles and find out the guidelines.
• Scott also asked the court to begin enforcing the county’s Blighted and Deteriorated Property law. He said McRoberts is the largest unincorporated community in the county and has at least 20 abandoned houses. County Attorney Bolling told Scott the interested parties need to get together and make a list of properties to go after and added that the City of Jenkins’s ordinance is very similar to the county’s, and that Jenkins has been very successful in addressing the situation within its city limits.
• Gary Rogers of the Letcher Fire and Rescue Department reported on improvements the department has made on a fire station at Campbell’s Branch and on Campbell’s Branch Community Center as well. Rogers said a fire truck is on station in Campbell’s Branch and as soon as paperwork is filed, insurance rates should begin to come down slightly.
• Dena Sparkman told the court that ARH will be sponsoring a golf tournament at Raven Rock Golf Course in Jenkins, with hole sponsorships available for $150 each. “Not that anybody here is running for anything,” added Sparkman.
• The court voted to prepare a deed to transfer property to the Letcher County Board of Education to complete a transaction begun in 1961 when the old Fleming- Neon High School burned down. County Attorney Bolling said the board had sold some lots it owned to recoup its losses, but the remainder of the property had never been deeded back to the board.
• The court voted to accept a resolution accepting an agreement with the General Assembly to finance the Knott County Interconnect to provide water from Carr Fork Lake through the Knott County Water District.
• The court approved the first reading of a budget amendment to accept more than $800,000 in unbudgeted funds into the Local Government Economic Assistance fund from the state and voted to approve the second reading of an amendment to accept $443,035 from LGEA state grants.
• During the treasurer’s report, Magistrate Fleming questioned an expense item for medical treatment for inmates in the Letcher County Jail’s report, but Judge Ward said the county is responsible for inmates’ treatment and can do nothing about it.