PRESTONSBURG — Two days after failing to take action to address a $450,000 shortfall during an often heated meeting, a more congenial Floyd County Fiscal Court met for two hours behind closed doors Friday and came out with a plan magistrates say will plug the gap while avoiding laying off county employees.
However, at least one county official says the new plan simply shifts the burden and will result in layoffs in other county offices.
The fiscal court had been struggling for a week to find answers, after Judge-Executive R.D. “Doc” Marshall and County Treasurer David Layne announced that the county was on pace to run out of money by March and would likely default on its bond payments. The court was also staring down a threat from state officials, who attended a meeting earlier in the week to threaten court members with removal from office and a state takeover of the county, if they did not get their financial affairs in order.
The court met for four hours Friday, including two hours in closed session after hearing public comments for nearly an hour. When they emerged, County Attorney Keith Bartley read from a 15-point list the plan magistrates agreed upon.
Among the actions the court plans are:
• Agreeing to a plan put forward by Jailer Cheyenne McKinney to subcontract the Floyd County Detention Center’s food service, which is expected to save the county $70,000 to $80,000 a year.
• Stop paying for health insurance and retirement benefits for the sheriff’s and county clerk’s offices, requiring the offices to cover those costs themselves.
• Negotiating an agreement that would require Southern Water and Sewer District to pay $12,000 a month for use of water lines and tanks, after the county was stuck with paying the bonds on water line extensions. The state Public Service Commission ruled earlier this year that Southern was under no obligation to pay for the cost of the extensions, because there was no written agreement in place requiring them to do so.
• Selling two pieces of property, including the Martin Community Center and a vacant tract of land near Super 8 Motel, in Prestonsburg.
• Selling surplus vehicles and equipment.
• Soliciting new bids for health insurance, worker’s compensation insurance and liability insurance, “to see if there is a better deal out there.”
• Fronting $50,000 to the sheriff’s office on Jan. 3 from the alcohol tax, to assist with paying insurance and retirement costs.
• Assessing fees on golf tournaments at the Allen golf course of $1,000 for tournaments with 30 or more participants and $500 for tournaments with fewer.
• Reducing expenditures in the road department.
• Allowing a vacant position in the county attorney’s office to go unfilled.
• Allowing the vacant alcoholic beverage control officer position to go unfilled, with Marshall assuming those duties.
• Parking county vehicles, except those needed in emergencies.
• Turning off all county official cell phones.
• Turning off lights at county parks during winter months.
• Limiting payment of transportation expenses for autopsies to only those autopsies that are ordered by the coroner.
• Charging $300 a month rent for each of two spots in the Allen golf course pro shop. Those spots have previously been occupied rent-free.
• Eliminating overtime for all county employees, except in cases of a declared emergency.
After reading the list, Bartley said he knew some of the decisions would prove unpopular, but he defended the court by saying that they did their best under difficult circumstances.
“These decisions are difficult,” Bartley said. “It’s easy for people to stand up and say, ‘We don’t want this service cut,’ or, ‘We don’t want these people laid off.’ But if you notice, not a single person stood up, except for [County Clerk] Chris Waugh, on Wednesday, and said, ‘We’ll take this cut. It’s okay if this is cut out, if this service can’t be provided.’ It’s easy to ask. It’s hard to give.
“They’ve got no choice. They were told by the people in the Department for Local Government this week, that if they don’t take these steps, this court will be removed and the state will take over. If the state takes over, I promise you, because I’ve seen this happen in other places, everything will get cut. Everybody will get sliced. All services will be reduced and/or gotten rid of. I really don’t think anybody wants that.”
Bartley said magistrates were most motivated by a desire not to lay off any employees, and he said they believe they have trimmed enough to allow them to do that, but, “That is certainly something that could change in the future, if the financial situation dictates that.”
Among the actions, the most controversial was the plan to require the sheriff and county clerk to cover their employees insurance and retirement costs. Sheriff John K Blackburn said there was simply no way he could do so, which would require him to lay off numerous deputies.
“I have to borrow money in January,” Blackburn said. “I start out with zero amount. I have no money come Jan. 1. I have to borrow money from the state to make payroll and pay my gasoline bill … Now, I don’t have enough money to pay employees’ payroll or the gasoline bill.”
Blackburn’s wife, Pam Blackburn, who works in his office, said the math does not add up. She said the sheriff would have use money that is usually turned over to the county in excess fees to cover the cost, but insurance and retirements adds up to five times more than what the office has.
“We have $60,000 in excess fees,” Pam Blackburn said. “How do we cover $300,000 with that?”
Bartley responded that the clerk and sheriff would have to make some hard spending decisions. However, he said cuts are inescapable.
“They know there are going to have to be layoffs,” Bartley said. “They know that.”
“We are not able to pay what the court is asking of us,” Pam Blackburn said. “It cannot be done. It’s not possible.”
“They don’t have the money, either, is what’s the problem,” Bartley replied.
During the meeting, The Floyd County Times questioned whether the plan put forward Friday was the subject of the closed meeting, noting that nearly every item on the list was barred from discussion behind closed doors. Bartley, however, said all of the items in the plan were either discussed in open meetings or were discussed among themselves, in person or on the phone.
The Times, however, noted that the state Open Meetings Act also forbids “any series of less-than-quorum meetings, where the members attending one or more of the meetings collectively constitute at least a quorum of the members of the public agency and where the meetings are held for the purpose of avoiding” open meetings requirements. The newspaper then issued an objection to the alleged violation and asked that the object be recorded in the meeting’s minutes.
The Times plans to file a challenge to the alleged violation in coming weeks.