Whitesburg KY

What comes next for ‘broke’ county?

The Letcher Fiscal Court will have to start over on finding a way to fill a $1.3 million hole in its budget.

The tie vote Monday on an ordinance to create a $2,500 business license on facilities such as oil and gas wells, coal mines and rock quarries has left the county where it was a month ago — short on money and no ideas on how to raise more.

Judge/Executive Jim Ward said Tuesday that he and his staff are working on the budget again, but he doesn’t know where anything more can be cut, or what other method could be used to raise revenue.

“This is one fee, license, tax, whatever you want to call it, that wouldn’t be paid by the people in the county,” Ward said.

Ward and Magistrates Wayne Fleming and Woody Holbrook voted in favor of the business license ordinance, but Magistrates Terry Adams, Keith Adams and Bobby Howard voted against it. Tie votes fail to pass.

The votes came after County Attorney Jamie Hatton advised the court to hold a closed session to discuss litigation. The Kentucky Oil and Gas Association had threatened to sue the county if the ordinance was passed, but no cases have been filed against it in the past month, according to records in the Letcher Circuit Clerk’s office. The Kentucky Attorney General ruled in 2015 that a specific threat of litigation is enough to call a closed meeting.

Ward said he voted against the closed session because he thought it was improper, and that the court should have proceeded with the ordinance.

“The ordinance should have passed, and it should have been decided by a court, not somebody’s opinion,” he said.

A broadly unpopular proposal to increase garbage bills by 33.33 percent to $20 was tabled until later. County residents have been vocal about their opposition to the garbage fee, but Ward has continued to support it, saying it would provide cash flow for the county to operate.

The court previously decided against considering a 1 percent occupational tax and a 6  percent insurancet ax. Meanwhile, the county budget will shrink to about $7 million by next year, from $10.7 million in 2012-2013.

Ward said the county is required by law to pay certain bills. He said the jail alone costs $1.2 million, and the county has to pay for it. Another $455,000 will go for payments on the recreation center, and $280,000 will be spend on payments for the courthouse. In addition, the court must pay constitutional officers, meaning those elected officials set out in the state constitution.

Meanwhile, he said the county is still mowing parks and keeping lights on at Little League fields, but he’s not sure how long that will last. Without park maintenance, particularly at sites like Fishpond Lake, he said the county might be in even worse shape.

“There’s no money to do anything with parks and recreation or promote tourism to bring people in here,” Ward said.

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