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Water board left without acting boss

The already-rudderless Letcher County Water & Sewer District is now without an acting captain.

Jim Murtaugh, who for many years had overseen many of the Water & Sewer District’s day-to-day tasks, had been the district’s interim director since former director Greg Pridemore left last year to take a job with the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s Rural Development Agency. On April 16, three of five members of the district’s board of directors voted to eliminate Murtaugh’s position and demote him to “distribution.”

The move to oust Murtaugh, whose volunteer work in helping to start and continue Letcher County’s youth soccer league has won him many admirers, was initiated by Water & Sewer Board Chairman Philip A. “Peewee” Back.

After stating at the board’s April 16 meeting that the last few months had been “hard,” Back called on the other two board members attending the meeting, Jim Flynn and Richard Carter, to terminate Murtaugh’s positions as interim director and operations manager.

“I have not been happy with Jim Murtaugh and he’s not been happy with me,” said Back.

Flynn introduced the motion to demote Murtaugh. Carter seconded the motion, which passed 3-0.

No reason other than Back’s unhappiness was give for Murtaugh’s ouster. Sewer District was formed in 1997 during the administration of former county judge/executive Carroll A. Smith to serve areas of the county outside of the city limits of Whitesburg, Jenkins, Fleming-Neon, and Blackey with water and sewer service.

None of the Water & Sewer District’s founding commissioners are still active. During its first 10 years, the board was able to complete the installation of a sewer system at Millstone; extend water lines from Blackey through Little Colley and on to Sandlick; build water lines from Sandlick Gap to Camp Branch and on to Democrat; assume operation of the financially troubled Blackey water plant; and initiated projects to get water to Craft’s Colly, Little Cowan, Smoot Creek/Premium and Thornton.

For much of the past two years, however, the board — often as a result of interference by the Letcher Fiscal Court — has found itself focusing more on politics, personality conflicts and issues such as the cost of tap-on fees than on getting much-needed water and sewer services to Letcher County’s rural residents.

Last fall, several weeks after Pridemore had quit to go to work for the federal government, the fiscal court created much controversy when it refused to re-appoint former board chairman Seth Long, director of the non-profit HOMES Inc. of Whitesburg, to another term and publicly berated him in process. The court’s action quickly led to the resignation in protest of the board’s Cumberland River representative, Lonnie Buchanan.

Buchanan was eventually replaced by Carter and Long was replaced by Back, who had previously been appointed to the board by Letcher Judge/Executive Jim Ward in 2007 but quit a short time later.

After Back was finally approved for a second stint by the Kentucky Public Service Commission early this year, little time elapsed before controversy began brewing again.

In March 2009, Back, in just his second meeting back, grew angry after Murtaugh spoke with the board about Public Service Commission regulations of tap-on fees some members of the board and fiscal court wanted to lower. Back told Murtaugh he should be spending more of his time in the field and less in the office gathering regulations. Murtaugh had been staying in the office to allow the only other office employee, secretary Jackie Joseph, to be with her mother for the funeral of her stepfather, James Breeding.

Murtaugh was demoted a month later.

The Water & Sewer District will hold its May meeting tomorrow (Thursday) at 6 p.m.

The fiscal court voted this week to renew the terms of Back and two members who weren’t involved in the action against Murtaugh — Fred Webb and Billy Stamper — to their seats on the Water & Sewer District board. The terms of all three will now expire June 30, 2013.

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