If one were to ask Tony Lewis what the top concern for his community in Perry County is, most likely he would say “water.” This is because in Fort Branch, where Lewis and around 200 other people live, municipal water service is not yet available, and the county is finding it difficult to fund such a needed project thanks to dwindling coal severance funds and federal and state budget cuts.
Unfortunately, this story of needs not being met in the area due to a lack of funding isn’t unique here in Eastern Kentucky’s poverty-stricken coal counties.
Another all-too-familiar story in the region is being played out this year — to the tune of $2.5 million in coal severance taxes — money that is not, however, being spent to improve the economy and industry of Eastern Kentucky’s coalfields.
At the end of Kentucky’s 2012 legislative session, during a closed-door session, a decision was made to allot $2.5 million from the coal severance tax fund to help plan a renovation of Rupp Arena, according to a report published in the Lexington Herald-Leader this week.
The coal severance fund was established in 1972 to give coal mining communities a way to improve their infrastructures, waste management, and water service, among other things, not fund projects outside the coalfields where basic necessities aren’t so much of a concern.
Here in Perry County, which in 2012 was the third highest producer of coal in the state, the fiscal court is set to approve a budget later this month that cuts coal severance by $1.5 million from the previous fiscal year. At present, the county expects to take in about $1.2 million in coal taxes. That cut represents possible losses in improvements to waterlines, roads, and money for local programs.
Many Fort Branch residents rely on complex and expensive filtration systems to render the groundwater usable for bathing and washing. But even then, the water likely isn’t fit for cooking or drinking. These people have been waiting close to a decade for clean water that would cost a fraction of the Rupp Arena project, which only started official planning in the last two years.
Fayette County, on the other hand, didn’t produce a block of coal, though leaders can expect $2.5 million in state grants originating from the same fund which benefits Perry and other coal counties each year.
Lewis and his neighbors will apparently just have to keep waiting for a good, clean drink of water. But what will that matter since they’ll have a newly renovated Rupp Arena to look forward to?
We think the folks on Fort Branch, and many more like them still waiting for water service in the county, would likely disagree with lawmakers who apparently think a pretty basketball arena is of more consequence than their constituents’ quality of life.
Some legislators have defended the decision to allot the money for the project, including House Speaker Greg Stumbo.
“Because of the shortfalls, there was no other pot of money we could find,” Stumbo, of Floyd County, told the Herald-Leader last week through a prepared statement. “Though Rupp is not in the coalfields, many believe it plays an important role in the state because of the tradition of the University of Kentucky basketball program, and there is strong alumni support in our region as well.”
Stumbo later attempted to clarify the state’s use of coal severance for Rupp last week, saying he’ll push for the repayment of those funds once the bonds for Rupp Arena are issued.
But it is true that many people here love UK basketball, and some who still have jobs will go take in a few games next season. Perhaps Speaker Stumbo and our other legislators can explain to people in their home region why they can’t get waterlines extended to their communities. Perhaps they can explain why an arena outside of the coalfields, where no coal is being produced, should get millions in coal taxes that are supposed to go back to the coal counties.
Perhaps that’s how it is supposed to be, that the needs of the few outweigh the needs of the many. Our priorities are obviously askew when we value an entertainment venue over necessities like water, but in the end we can’t say we’re that surprised. After all, the state lops off over 50 percent of coal taxes for the General Fund and other allocations outside of the coalfields. What’s another $2.5 million?
Let’s ask the people of Fort Branch.
— The Hazard Herald