Whitesburg KY

Water board must use caution

The private citizens who are in charge of the Letcher County Water and Sewer District were acting in the best interest of the county’s taxpayers last week when they voted to temporarily delay taking action on the Letcher Fiscal Court’s plan to turn over to the City of Jenkins the proposed Payne Gap/Kona water line extension project — and, with it, the revenue to be generated from 497 potential new customers.

The fiscal court, without consulting the water and sewer district’s board of directors, voted unanimously in June to ask the Kentucky Public Service Commission to allow Jenkins to take control of the long-planned project. That vote, however, conflicted with state law, which requires that such a request be made by the county water and sewer district — which is supposed to operate independently of the fiscal court.

Undeterred, five of the six elected officials who make up the fiscal court attended the August meeting of the water and sewer district’s board of directors last week and urged the board to go ahead and petition the Public Service Commission to approve transferring the communities of Payne Gap, Kona and Bottom Fork into the Jenkins water district.

Rather than rubber-stamping the fiscal court’s request, board members sensibly voted not to take any further action until after they have a chance to discuss the proposal with Jenkins city officials. That meeting, which is open to the public, is scheduled for Thursday at 6 p.m. in the Letcher District Courtroom.

Meanwhile, the question of why the fiscal court would want to give the Payne Gap/Kona project to Jenkins continues to be a real headscratcher.

Bell Engineering, the Lexington firm which does most of the planning for the county water and sewer district, reported last week that engineering plans for the estimated $4 million project are nearly 70 percent complete. Bell representative Steve Caudill also told the board that the company is owed $119,000 for the planning work already done. Can the cash-strapped water and sewer district really afford to burn that much money for county plans that would then not be completed if the project is turned over to Jenkins and the separate engineering firm it uses?

It was also noted at last week’s water and sewer board meeting that the Kentucky Division of Abandoned Mine Lands has already entered into a three-year, $52,000 contract with Bell Engineering to conduct a study of the Payne Gap/Kona area to determine how much of the area’s groundwater source has been affected by coal mines which were in operation before current reclamation laws went into effect in 1977. The study would determine how much, if any, AML money will be contributed to the project. The county water board has been operating under the belief that the project might be funded 100- percent by the AML. What happens to the project if, as Bell’s Caudill cautioned, AML shifts its funding priorities and places the study “at the end of the line”? Would such a development be in the best interest of Letcher County’s taxpayers and the 497 homes which stand to be affected by such a delay?

Jenkins city officials and fiscal court members who support transferring the Payne Gap/Kona project away from the county water board say their intent is to speed up the process of getting treated water to residents who badly need it. Jenkins officials say they intend to transfer the area in question back to the county water district as soon as water is flowing through the new lines.

We have no reason to doubt their good intentions. But we can’t help wondering why Jenkins, after acquiring hundreds of new paying customers, would then want to give them up. After all, it has been only three weeks since members of the Jenkins City Council listened with great interest when Lexington engineer Paul Nesbitt, whose Nesbitt Engineering firm would take charge of designing the Payne Gap/Kona project, said the city would pick up nearly 500 new customers through the project without its taxpayers taking on any debt if AML pays for the project.

Does the Letcher County Water and Sewer District really want to take a chance on throwing away a project that might be fully funded by the Abandoned Mine Lands program — and, with it, nearly 500 paying customers it doesn’t now have?

Perhaps we’ll hear answers on Thursday. Meanwhile, we call for caution.

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