HAZARD — Outgoing Perry County Judge-Executive Denny Ray Noble found himself facing surprising opposition last month as he appeared before the Kentucky Department for Local Government in Frankfort to bond money for road projects.
Noble requested and was approved for a bond of up to $2.4 million for a project involving the blacktopping of county roads and the purchase of two new Bush Hogs, a rotary mower used to cut down grass along the sides of the road. Perry County Sheriff Les Burgett along with Perry County citizens Keith Miller and Scott Alexander attended the meeting in an apparent attempt to prevent Noble from securing the funds for the project.
According to the order from the Department of Local Government, Alexander and Burgett were the only two to vocally object to the road bonds.
“There are a lot of bad roads out there, in my opinion,” Noble said. “They need to be repaired. It’s a normal process for us, every year, to do a bond … We blacktop every year to try to get the roads prepared for winter.”
In better economic times, Noble said he had generally requested $4 million for such a project, but with the reduction in coal severance funds, he has slashed that figure in half. He asked for a bit more this time, he said, in order to purchase two new Bush Hogs for the county.
“I’ve got two Bush Hogs that’s old,” said Noble. “We bought them years ago. Maybe they’re 12-years-old. It’s cost us more money to maintain those right now than to make payments on new ones.”
Judge Noble said the new equipment will help him address the problem of high weeds alongside county roads, which he said has been his biggest complaint from county residents.
“It’s my responsibility for the welfare and safety of the people,” he said.
Alexander, however, said he believes that any money the county borrows should be used for economic development. Instead of re-surfacing roads, he said he would rather see the money spent on projects that would generate jobs or improve infrastructure.
“My point of view is that with the economic crisis we’re in, we need to watch closely where we spend the money,” said Alexander. “And $2.4 million is a lot of money.”
Alexander’s chief concern, however, is that no specific plan has been given for the use of the money.
“There’s no plan,” he said. “You can see in the order it says ‘the project.’ It didn’t list what roads, it didn’t list anyplace it was going, so I felt like that would be a bad investment for Perry County.”
Alexander also took issue with Judge Noble’s claim that the details of the project had been read twice in fiscal court meetings and were approved. Alexander said that, while he was present at the meetings, he didn’t remember seeing a list. All that is known for certain, he said, is the county will purchase two Bush Hogs.
“We all know we run out of water every year here,” Alexander said. “You know, that’s almost enough money to build a water plant. We ran out of salt last year. Rather than just spend $2.4 million and leave the taxpayers accountable to pay it back, I just feel like we need to be more specific on where the money’s going.”
According to the order, if the county were to default on payments for the bonds, then the fiscal court would be forced to raise county taxes to pay the remaining balance due. The findings in the order seem to indicate that the Kentucky Association of Counties Finance Corporation, through which the fiscal court will be leasing the bond for the next 10 years, does not fear that will happen.
“The financial condition and prospects of the County (the Fiscal Court of Perry County) warrant a reasonable expectation that the principal and interest requirements of the proposed Lease can be met when due without seriously restricting other expenditures of the County,” the order reads.
Alexander said that borrowing $2.4 million will only add to the county’s debt, which he claims will then total around $8 million.
“If it’s good for Perry County, I’m for it,” he continued. “… It’s easy to borrow money; it’s hard to pay it back.”
Noble said he has been a good steward of county finances. According to Noble, the county was $18.7 million in debt when he took office in 1999. Now, as he prepares to finish out his final term as County Judge-Executive, he said the deficit has been reduced to more than $5 million. With Knott County owning 30% of the jail, Noble said, that figure is further reduced by about $4 million.
“According to the state department of local government, this county is in better shape than any county in Kentucky,” he said.
Noble’s biggest qualm, though, was with Perry County Sheriff Les Burgett.
“The sheriff wants Hazardous Duty Pay,” said Judge Noble. “The sheriff said he never did get what he wanted, and he said he still wouldn’t get it if we got that bond.”
Hazardous Duty Pay is often given to certain state employees who perform hazardous duties. In this instance, though, Noble alleges that Sheriff Burgett has an ulterior motive.
“It doubles his retirement when he retires,” Noble said. “That’s what he was wanting, that he hadn’t got. That’s the reason he said that in those remarks. That’s the only thing I’ve ever turned him down on.”
Noble said that matching retirement requires the county to match every $100 Burgett makes with a little over $18. Hazardous Duty Pay, however, would up that amount to $39 for every $100 earned.
Judge Noble continued, “Once you do it, you can’t ever take it back … You know, we’ve still got to repair roads. We’ve got to keep the jail going. We’ve got to keep the school buses hauling kids in and out of the hollows. What is more important? Giving the sheriff Hazardous Duty Pay?”
Burgett, however, contends that Hazardous Duty Pay was never even brought up during the meeting concerning the road bonds.
“If they wanted to increase my retirement right now, in as bad a shape as Perry County’s in, I would refuse it,” he said. “We’ve got so many more problems that we need to address.”
According to the order, Burgett “resolved that the debt service on this lease would inhibit other necessary spending by the county,” but had nothing with him to support that.
Burgett said the reason he was at the meeting was because Alexander requested he be there, and he agreed after being told that there was no plan in place for the bond money.
“I really don’t feel like they ought to turn him (Noble) loose with $2.4 million without a plan. He had no plan for that,” Burgett said. “He has literally wasted millions of dollars—on Raptor trucks, on Tahoes, on county police … and I could just go on with naming stuff that he has wasted our money on.”
Burgett said he was unsure if a plan which listed which roads would be repaved to prepare for winter was something the fiscal court usually did.
“This is going to be left for the next administration to be paid back over a 10-year period,” he said. “I truly feel like, and that’ll be totally left up to the next judge, that ever who’s elected should totally focus on jobs.”
Ultimately, Noble said he hadn’t expected to see the three men at the meeting. He said he can’t come up with a reason as to why they opposed him, especially because his intentions to request the bond had been discussed in the Perry County Fiscal Court prior to his trip to Frankfort. Any objection they had should have been made there, he said.
“I feel like we’ve done the job,” Noble said, reflecting on his time in office. “And I’m not campaigning, you know, mine’s over. We’ve bought the county garage, we’ve built a new tower, we’ve got all new equipment – paid for, except for the two Bush Hogs we just got. Everything is paid for, and that should relieve the taxpayers from any burdens they’d have from raising taxes later on. Until the coal mines go back, … or we get jobs back in here.”
Noble said he has not discussed the matter with any of the three men since coming back from Frankfort.
Mindy Miller and Amelia Holliday can be reached at 606-436-5771, or on Twitter @HazardHerald.