HAZARD — Members of the Perry County Fiscal Court joined together for a special called meeting on Friday to vote on the first reading of an ordinance, which, if approved, would place a 1 percent occupational tax, also known as a payroll tax, on all workers receiving paychecks from employers located inside Perry County. For workers in Hazard’s city limits, this tax would be cut from their paychecks, along with all other city taxes they already pay.
However, when the elected members of the Fiscal Court cast their votes, the ordinance failed to pass. Judge Executive Scott Alexander, who has been a strong advocate for the tax, and District 2 Magistrate Ronald Combs, voted yes on passing the ordinance, while District 1 Magistrate Keith Miller, along with District 3 Magistrate Kenny Cole, voted no. In order for an ordinance to become law, it must receive a majority yes vote. When a Fiscal Court vote results in a tie, the measure being voted on fails to pass.
“Times are tough for the people in my district,” Magistrate Kenny Cole said, “I feel like our people have been taxed enough already. That’s why I am voting no.”
Magistrate Keith Miller also voiced several concerns about the proposal of this tax during the meeting. Whereas, Judge Alexander and Magistrate Ronald Combs spoke of the need for further taxation.
“It comes with a price,” Ronald Combs said of passing the tax, “It’s the only job I’ve got, but I tell you what, if we don’t do something, I won’t have it anyway. If you ain’t able to help the people, they’re not going to help you when it comes time to vote. And there are a lot of angles that got us here. But there’s only one angle out and we are going to have to help ourselves.”
Citizens gathered in the courtroom to witness the meeting and express their opinions. Among the citizens addressing the court prior to the vote was A.B. Francis.
“So, to me, the occupational tax, at least from a young person’s perspective, that’s taking away the incentive to work; the incentive to want to be here because you have to work harder for less just to stay at your home. I think that we should implement maybe a luxury tax or a restaurant tax or something that’s optional. I don’t know what the percentage of unemployment is in the county, but something that not just the working man is paying for, but something that can be divided equally among all the people in Perry County,” A.B. Francis said.
During the discussion, Magistrate Keith Miller revealed his concerns over some of the Perry County Government’s spending practices, which Miller said were excessive and not cut from the budget, despite knowledge of dwindling finances.
“I don’t care if I win again or not, but we ain’t going to waste no more money. Next year, when it comes to voting again for $50 thousand for the Perry County Fair, I am voting no.”
Miller also questioned the cost of fireworks for the Perry County Fair, which Alexander estimated at $8 to $9 thousand paid by the Perry County Fair Board. Alexander argued that the Fiscal Court did not contribute money to the Perry County Fair. Addressing the news reporters in attendance, Alexander said, “That would be a good report, to see where the money for the fair came from. The Perry County Fair is a good thing. It helps local people raise money for local causes.”
The Hazard Herald will research and follow-up with any relevant information on the subject. On May 5, the Hazard Herald published a report about the Fiscal Court meeting, in which the sale of the KRADD building was discussed. The following paragraph in quotations is taken from that report.
“An offer from the UK Cooperative Extension Service for the purchase of the KRAAD building was discussed by the Fiscal Court. According to Judge Alexander’s explanation of the deal, the Extension Service is offering $250 thousand for the facility, which appraises at approximately $170 thousand. The payment of $250 thousand would be split in the agreement with $200 thousand going to the county and the additional $50 thousand helping to fund the Perry County Fair. Also, according to Alexander, the parking space would still be available for county use in the agreement. The Fiscal Court voted unanimously to pursue this offer.”
Miller also expressed disapproval for the amount of money the Fiscal Court has spent on contractors.
“When we look at the bills, it’s already spent. It’s hard for me to look at a contractor, that’s been hired to do the work and say, he shouldn’t be paid because I am a contractor too. You never run nothing by nobody. You spend it and just expect us to say yes to it.”
“I didn’t invent contracting,” Alexander responded, “There was contract working going on before I started and there is still contract work going.”
Prior to the meeting, Judge Alexander compiled a list of cuts to county government spending that he chose to share with the public, which he claims shows the effort his administration has made to curb excess and relieve strains on the budget.
“We’re in a financial crisis,” Alexander said, “As county judge, I think I have to put out there options that we can discuss on how we lead ourselves out of this. When I took over office, we were already running behind. On Jan. 17, I get a letter, we’ve got a past due balance of $105 thousand for Humana. On June 22 of 15, I get another past due bill from June of 2014 for $200,419. On Dec. 29, this was laying on the desk when I started from the Transportation Cabinet., we’ve got a past due bill over 90 days, the due date was 9-20-14, for $19,875. The Energy and Environment Cabinet, we had a past due bill of $3,468.52. From the Justice and Public Safety Cabinet, I get an invoice on Jan. 29. 2015 of an old bill in Oct. for $470 and down at the bottom, we have $1,574 owed from Jan. and Feb. of 2014. On top of that, at the jail, we inherited $558 thousand past due taxes on one bill. From 2011 and 2012, $116 thousand in back taxes. Also when we started, recorded in the clerk’s office on 8-6-2013, $382 thousand. The federal government had filed a lien. We resolved that in Aug. When we started, I talked to employees and told everyone we were in financial crisis. I knew that when I ran. So, when I started, right out of the gate, I sold the Ford Raptor. I drive my own truck. I do get reimbursed for some gas when I drive to Frankfort and stuff. But I drive my own truck. The health insurance, when we started, it was a tough decision, but we cut the health insurance $50 thousand a month. I know that hurt the employees and it was a tough decision, but I knew where we was heading. 911 was losing $30 thousand a month. We all stepped up and solved that problem. At the Senior Citizens Center, we cut $7 thousand a month, without cutting services. The first year we cut workman’s comp $14 thousand. The second year we cut $29 thousand. At the jail, we cut $55 per month, some months more than that. We cut the phone bills $8 thousand a year. We got cut $260 thousand at the Road Dept. in state funds. With that, we’ve cut over $2 million. Sadly, it’s still not enough.”
Contractors were not included on Alexander’s list of cuts. The Hazard Herald published a report on April 12 about concerns that were brought up in previous Fiscal Court meetings about contract spending, which estimated nearly $200 thousand for two contractors in question. The county has utilized several contractors over the past couple of years for various jobs. However, according to the Fiscal Court, road funds have drastically diminished.
“Over the past three months, it’s gotten to the point to where if a gravel drops in that lot, there are guys fighting over it,” Ronald Combs said during the meeting.
The Hazard Herald also published a report on May 10, detailing the amount of coal severance revenue lost over the past 5 years. That report confirmed that Perry County is down about $2 million in coal severance tax money since Alexander took office. In September, the Hazard Herald published a report on debt at the Kentucky River Regional Jail, which has accumulated since 2011. This report followed a $1.2 million loan the Perry County Fiscal Court accepted for the purpose of covering debt at the jail. That report confirmed the jail’s overall debt does equal the amount of the loan. There is no information yet on if the jail’s debt has been relieved. However, Miller claimed at the meeting that the amount of money the Perry County Fiscal court has borrowed over the past couple of years, exceeds the amount lost in coal severence revenue, close to $2 million. Therefore, he questioned the need to cut any services.
Ben Stidham of the Grapevine/Chavies Volunteer Fire Dept. attended Friday’s meeting. Stidham spoke on behalf of Perry County’s fire departments, which have taken major cuts in funding since coal severance tax revenue has decreased. The fire departments once received approximately $10 thousand per year. Now, that funding has dissipated to nearly nothing. Stidham stressed the need for fire departments to be assured they would receive funding from the occupational tax if it passes. The Fiscal Court agreed that the fire departments provide a vital service to the community, but no clear cut estimate of what percentage of the tax revenue would go to specific services could be determined.
When the special called fiscal court meeting ended on Friday, Perry County remained without a payroll tax. Alexander and Combs supported the ordinance. Miller and Cole opposed it. The issue will be discussed further and likely voted on again soon.
Sam Neace can be reached at 606-629-3243 or on Twitter @HazardHerald.