The Mountain Eagle
Whitesburg KY

Sewer plan killed, county could lose $1.37 million grant

The Letcher County Water and Sewer District will lose $1.37 million because of a failure to obtain the necessary easements to lay sewer lines in the Blackey/Jeremiah area unless funding agencies can be convinced to reallocate the money for other projects within the county.

Stephen Caudill of Bell Engineering told the Water and Sewer District’s board of directors at its May meeting that only 17 out of 60 residents of Blackey have been willing to sign easements. He said a PRIDE grant of more than $1 million will be lost unless PRIDE is willing to allow the money to be used for other sewer projects in Letcher County. Caudill said that in any instance, the money must be used for sewer projects.

Letcher County Judge/Executive Jim Ward, District One Magistrate Bobby Lewis, and District Two Magistrate Archie Banks attended the meeting and all three agreed there are a number of other sewer projects in Letcher County which can use the funds if they can be reallocated. Caudill said that other funds tied to the Blackey Sewer Project will also have to be reallocated. He said the PRIDE grant, which would be administered through the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers, will be lost if it is not reallocated within 120 days.

Magistrate Banks said one problem at Blackey is that a number of residents have straight pipes running their household sewer directly into creeks and the North Fork of the Kentucky River and are not willing to pay $30 per month for county sewer lines to run the waste into a treatment plant.

Former Blackey Mayor Mike Dixon attended the meeting and told the board he understands the need to reallocate the funds before they are lost, but said he hopes the board will not give up on a sewer project at Blackey. Dixon said the need is critical in light of the proximity of the Blackey Water Plant’s intake to straight pipes.

“I don’t want to minimize the need for a sewer system in the Blackey area,” said Dixon. “If the board chooses to move the money, I ask you not to give up on the process of doing something in the area. Don’t give up on the idea of addressing the need. The intake is right there and there are serious contamination issues.”

In reply to a question from Banks about obtaining easements, Dixon said he believes the possibility that people will sign the easements still exists, but acknowledged that the $30-permonth sewer fee recommended by the Kentucky Public Service Commission is very high for the area. Dixon said community organizing had been the key in Blackey before and he believes it can help with the easements.

“We had the same problem with water,” said Dixon. “People mistrust the government. We did door to door caucusing and community organizing. We need for the community not to allow one or two people to block it. I think funding is the bigger issue.”

Banks pledged to do whatever he can to make the sewer plant work. Water and Sewer District Board Chairman Phillip “Peewee” Back said he believes the high cost of the service is the biggest stumbling block for getting the easements signed. Back said that a lot of people in the Blackey area cannot afford a $30 per month fee and said the county could lose 102 potential customers if it cannot adjust the fees, which include a projected full-time sewer plant operator.

Tim Reed, who was appointed as Superintendent of the Water and Sewer District at last month’s meeting, told the board that a fulltime operator for Blackey would cost at least $40,000 per year and half-time operator would cost $20,000. Reed, who is a certified plant operator, said the district cannot legally pay for sewer operations with money from water sales.

Caudill, the engineer, also reported on progress of several other water and sewer projects in the county. He said the obstacle of getting an easement signed to get water to the Copperhead Road neighborhood of Craft’s Colly has been overcome thanks to cooperation by the Kentucky Department of Transportation. He said residents affected by a long-term dispute with a single property owner would probably be getting water in their homes sometime this week.

Caudill also said he has been in consultation with Kentucky Division of Abandoned Mine Lands, and that AML is looking at a number of areas in the county to potentially fund as having been impacted by mining before 1982.

Caudill said AML is also looking favorably on funding a portion of the Knott County Interconnect Project which will furnish water to Letcher County from Carr Creek Lake. He said the project is critical to Letcher County because the county is almost at capacity for furnishing treated water to its customers now. Caudill said AML is willing to allocate $300,000 for the inter-connect line.

In his report to the board, Reed said the current cost per 1,000 gallons of treated water at the Blackey Plant is $5.99, more than double the cost the county pays to buy water from the City of Whitesburg, which charges $2.90 per 1,000 gallons. Reed said the district is at a standstill with the Blackey situation until the Knott County Interconnect is finalized. Water District Secretary Jackie Joseph said if the county could upgrade the Blackey Plant, it could reduce the operating costs considerably.

Reed also told the board that Phoenix Development wants to develop lots near Blackey that will have eight to 10 houses and has asked the district to extend sixinch lines by 120 feet and they will do the rest of the work including installing meter barrels. Phoenix will buy meters from the county. The board voted unanimously to extend the lines.

Back again told the board that the high price of water was keeping potential customers on side roads from hooking up and asked that the $20 per month fee be reduced to $10 per month. Back said it doesn’t make sense to just have the lines lie unused when they could be generating income, even if it is a smaller amount than was planned for.

Magistrate Banks said there are no legal restrictions on the amount per month as long as the district is servicing its debts. Ward agreed, adding that at a recent meeting of the Public Service Commission, the agency’s lawyers did not rule out reducing fees in order to attract new customers.

“They just want to know how the district will get their money back,” said Ward. “Show them the money will come back versus nothing.”

In other business, board secretary Joseph reported that former Operations Manager Jim Murtaugh had offered his two week notice of resignation from the district. Murtaugh was demoted by the board at the April meeting.

Reed told the board that Murtaugh’s resignation will leave the district two men short and asked the board to approve hiring either one trained operator or two untrained workers at minimum wage and then training them. Back said it would be better in the long term to train two workers. Reed said the workers would become eligible for raises if they get their operator’s license and get certified for other operating jobs.

Back moved to advertise two jobs at $8 per hour, and the board voted unanimously in favor of his motion.

When the board was voting to pay its bills, Jackie Joseph told them that when the current round of bills are paid, the district would have $14.93 in its bank account with payments on Kentucky Infrastructure Authority loans and EPA loans coming up soon. She said that approximately $1,537 will be arriving in June from customer hook-ups. The board voted in March to pay loan payments with money left over from another project.

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