HAZARD — Several controversial topics dominated the latest Perry County Fiscal Court meeting on Wednesday, including private meetings of public officials and an audit of the county clerk’s office.
Judge-Executive Denny Ray Noble said during the meeting that the court was to meet with an engineer later in the day and outside of Wednesday's official meeting, with a quorum present, to discuss water issues in the county. He noted that the engineer was unable to make the meeting Wednesday morning.
According to state law, however, any meeting when a quorum of the fiscal court is present and discussing county business should be properly noticed as well as be open to the public, and all agendas and filed materials be available to anyone that makes a request. Most states have these laws to protect the rights of the public to know what is being done by public officials.
The Kentucky Attorney General recently opined that the fiscal court in Knott County violated the state’s open meeting law in a similar in case which, after the adjournment of a special-called meeting, the court remained and openly discussed county business outside the parameters of an official meeting. Following a complaint lodged by a local resident there, officials in Hindman were advised that they had indeed violated state law.
The Sunshine Law, as it is known, was created to allow members of the public to have the opportunity to be present at any and all meetings discussing the public’s business. Judge Noble actually admitted to breaking this law in court on Wednesday, but he said it was for the good of the county, not trying to exclude the public.
“Sometimes we do break the Sunshine Law because we have to,” said Noble, adding that they hold these unannounced meetings so that they can fully discuss issues so they are able to be in agreement prior to coming to meetings where action on issues is taken. He said that he believes this makes them more efficient in public meetings.
Lost Creek resident Lloyd Engle, who was in the audience at the time, called Noble on this and explained the purpose and reason for these laws.
“What the Sunshine Law is, is that this gives the public the chance to know what is going on,” said Engle. “When you start breaking the Sunshine Law you guys get together in a back room here by yourselves.”
Noble said that while these meetings are not announced, anyone that wanted to would be welcome and they always leave the door open.
“The Sunshine Laws were put in to effect for a reason, and maybe you all have a reason to break them, but if you all keep meeting like that over and over again then soon we won’t have a meeting like this to go to,” Engle responded.
Another topic discussed at the meeting was the recent recommendation by the Kentucky Auditor’s Office of what they are calling misused funds in the county clerk’s office that should be paid back to the fiscal court by Perry County Clerk Haven King. King said in an earlier interview and at the meeting that he was advised by the county attorney that he did not have to pay back the money, and also did not need to appeal the decision.
Engle, a retired postmaster, said that he had to be audited while he was at the post office and he had been made aware that an audit is considered final and accurate until someone refutes it.
“When an audit is done, it is considered correct if no body files a lawsuit about it,” said Engle.
King said he was unaware of this, and is willing to pay back the money pending a recommendation from the county attorney.
At that point Engle questioned why the fiscal court and King had not taken action on these funds sooner since the allegedly misused funds had been noted in audits up to several years ago.
“The fiscal court is supposed to demand these public officials to pay this money back. That is your job and I think you only have 90 days to do it in,” said Engle. “The county attorney should have advised him to file suit and say this audit is wrong.”
While County Attorney John Carl Shackelford was not at the meeting due to a prior commitment to district court, according to King he advised in a letter against county officials addressing the issue in public. However, King did decide to make a statement answering some of the questions asked by Engle. He said that many of the expenses that were questioned by the auditor’s office had been approved by the fiscal court prior to spending the money, and therefor he is unsure if they can be considered misused.
King came to the meeting originally for a different purpose. Since the major tax collection season and budgeting year are over, both King and Chief Deputy Tony Eversole came to the court to return unused funds. King returned more than $73,000 in excess fees to the county, while Eversole returned approximately $71,000. That money will be put back into the general fund.
Eversole then asked for the fiscal court to return those funds to the the sheriff’s office for use there, though the fiscal court voted against it.
Eversole also came to the meeting to inform the court of the progress and collection of taxes along with new programs that he noted have helped.
“We collected right at a million dollars more than last year,” said Eversole. “I am thinking some of it was that the tax rates were up, and maybe some more property.”
Noble was quick to point out that while several of the special taxing districts rates did increase, the taxes set by the county have not.
Eversole also mentioned that some of that increase could be due to an increase in property values for many homeowners.
The sheriff’s office can now accept credit cards and debit cards for tax payments, Eversole noted, which they believe has helped in collection despite the fact that the card companies do require an extra charge on these payments. The sheriff’s office also said that they collected over $5 million at their outpost on the Hazard bypass.
Also during the meeting, the fiscal court members discussed raising the salary of Perry County Jailer Jeanette Hughes. Since Hughes has come into office she has implemented several popular and cost effective programs, according to Judge Noble. Hughes started a program in which the residents of the jail grow much of their own produce in a garden. This helps to cut down on food costs and also teaches these residents and skill.
“They raise their own food all summer, she stayed right with them,” said Noble.
Noble recommended giving Hughes the salary increase to the maximum allowed by law because of how much money she has saved and how many positive improvements she has made to the jail.
The request passed unanimously, and she will now be receiving $68,169.48 a year.
The fiscal court also approved hiring three new county employees: Bryon Fugate, Raymond Holbrook and Whitney Delph.