By WILLIAM FARLEY
Water thieves in Letcher County are now being prosecuted — some of them on felony charges.
At the June meeting of the Board of Directors of the Letcher County Water and Sewer District, Manager Mark Lewis told the board that the first prosecutions are underway. He said that district workers recently conducted an audit of former customers who have had their water cut off for whatever reason, and workers went out to check the status of the meters at those locations. They discovered eight customers who were committing water theft to various degrees, and that some county-owned equipment had been damaged by the customers in their illicit hook-ups. The eight have been referred to Letcher County Attorney Jamie Hatton and three will be prosecuted as felonies with the remainder being prosecuted as misdemeanors.
“If they steal water, we’re going to catch them,” said Lewis.
The Board of Directors also voted unanimously to give Lewis permission to conduct a rate analysis on the rates Letcher County water customers pay for their water. Lewis told the board there has not been a rate analysis since the district was formed, and said it will take a few months to conduct the study. Once the data has been obtained it will have to be approved by the Kentucky Public Service Commission (PSC). It will be necessary for the district to have an up-to-date PSC annual report and an audit before the analysis can be approved and Hazard accountant Chris Gooch is working on both documents. With the board’s permission, the district can begin the alternate rate filing review process, as soon as it receives the audit and PSC annual report.
“Just like every other county, we depended on coal severance taxes to get us through,” said Lewis. “Now we need to look at a rate increase to sustain our debts.” Lewis said there hasn’t been a rate increase since 1997, and that the district will no longer be able to subsidize rates through coal severance taxes.
Board Chairman Bernard Watts told Lewis that while the board doesn’t like to have to look at rate increases, it also has the responsibility to meet its financial obligations, and with the cuts in coal severance funds, “It’s a reality.” Lewis added that rates have to be high enough to cover costs. Board member Richard Carter added that everything else has gone up, including the district’s operating costs.
Lewis also announced that the district has received a Community Facilities Award from the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s Rural Development Agency that will be used to purchase an excavator and a trailer with which to haul it. Lewis also thanked Judge/Executive Jim Ward for loaning the district a truck from the county garage to transport the equipment. He added that a number of people had been instrumental in getting the award through USDA, including Judge Ward, Angela Smith Hall of Kentucky River Area Development District, Kim Padgett of the Rural Community Assistance Project (RCAP), and the staff at USDA. Lewis said the new equipment and the truck will allow district workers to make their own taps and do other work without having to go to a private contractor, which should save a good deal of money.
In other business, Alan Bowman of Bell Engineering reported that construction is now complete on the second Knott County Interconnect. A final progress meeting was conducted on June 14 and the line has been tested and chlorinated. The one-year warranty period began on June 7 and the final adjusted construction cost was $370,405.85, which Bowman said is less than a five percent change from the original bid. The contractor also reimbursed the district for water used to flush the line and a cash allowance for telemetry was removed from the contract. Abandoned Mine Lands gave the district permission to purchase its own telemetry equipment, which will be used to communicate with the district office to provide information about the lines, and the costs will be reimbursed by AML. The board approved the purchase of the telemetry equipment and payment to the contractor.
Bell Engineering is in the process of putting an AML application together for the construction of a small water plant and all necessary line extensions to and from the project site to service the needs of Cumberland River area residents in Letcher County. Bell also discussed the option of purchasing a small lot that is considered excess right of way along US 119 with representatives of U.S. Fifth District Congressman Hal Rogers’s office, for the location for the plant. Bell and the district are working with the Kentucky Department of Highways on the site as well, and continue to maintain lines of communication with the Wise County, Va., Public Service Authority. The board approved the presentation of a project profile at the next quarterly KRADD meeting as well as an AML application.
Final design of water lines for Phase II of the Red Star, Ulvah, Hallie, and Turkey Creek Water Improvements Project is complete and the design of the tank site has also been finalized. Hydraulics are being checked to ensure adequate line pressure throughout the project and property owner information and easement descriptions for the water mains will be forwarded to the district. The board approved the submission of plans and specifications to the Kentucky Department of Water. A meeting will be scheduled with District 12 of the Kentucky Department of Highways to discuss any potential conflicts and resolutions.
AML has also indicated that it is ready to conduct an environmental review on plans for Phase II of the Bull Creek/Elk Creek Project and plans will be finalized and sent to AML and the Kentucky DOH for review. Bell will also do a complete hydraulic analysis on water lines from the City of Whitesburg to the Scuttle Hole Gap area and plans are being finalized to be sent to the Kentucky DOW before the next board meeting.
Bell representatives and board members attended a planning commission meeting on June 15 for the federal prison at Roxana, and Bell continues to work on AML applications to extend water utilities from Blackey and Roxana to the site of the prison. Bell is also working on developing a wastewater treatment plant to treat 400,000 gallons per day in the vicinity of the prison. Other projects are still under review for funding, and AML is conducting water sampling in the area covered by the Millstone Phase II project.