Business representatives and residents turned out at Fatboys Grill and Tavern for a community meeting hosted in Martin Wednesday by a Facebook group that pledges to “Take Martin, Kentucky Back.”

The event was created following a water outage that lasted four days last week, causing businesses to close, and after city council meeting in which Martin Mayor Sam Howell reported the city is “bleeding out” financially and that he asked the city attorney to draft a letter pulling Martin out of its $158.5 million redevelopment project.

Deanna Mullins, owner of Jungle Jims in Martin, said the meeting was held because residents and businesses can’t comment at meetings.

“I think because where we don’t get a voice at city hall, when we have the meetings, that this was a chance for people to kind of have a voice, for us to kind of voice what we have concerns with and what everyone else has concerns with,” she said. “That’s kind of the whole point of it. We’re just not going to step back and let our town just go to the ground.”

The redevelopment project was at the forefront at the beginning of the meeting, with U.S. Army Corps of Engineers Project Manager Brandon Moore and engineer Mike Johnson giving an overview of the second and third phases of the project and answering questions from the crowd. Moore reported, among other things, that the bid for the second phase of the redevelopment is expected to be let in April and the bid is expected to be awarded in July.

Attendees asked numerous questions, voicing concerns about everything from a road that will be built to divert traffic; to a housing facility planned to be built on Varia Mountain; to whether businesses and residents located in other areas outside of the city should be concerned about flooding after the downtown area is raised 15 ft.

Moore said the Corps will open a project office in Martin and be available to public in the near future to address specific questions.

That question-and-answer session was followed by discussions about concerns Martin residents and business owners appear to have about the city’s finances, its lack of transparency and other matters.

Martin Council Member Bonita Compton, attending the meeting alongside Council Member April Gayheart, addressed the crowd at length, emphasizing concerns she has raised repeatedly at city meetings.

Gayheart didn’t address the crowd at the event. Afterwards, she said she attended the meeting because she wants to improve the city.

“My purpose is to serve as a council member, to serve this community and the people in it ... I’m willing to do anything that I can to help, because that’s my purpose of being here,” Gayheart said.

Citing the city’s financial issues and recent water outages, Compton suggested that Martin outsource its water and sewer service — a comment other people in the room agreed with.

She complained about the city’s lack of transparency, saying that the city council has not approved a budget, has not approved bills since August, that purchases are made without council approval and that city check registers show deficits of $60,000 to $80,000.

She reported that she learned city police officers were buying their own gas and that Howell was getting reimbursed for it.

“I know that our city policemen, I was told straight up, is buying their own fuel and the mayor is getting reimbursed for that,” she said. “Folks that’s not the way to run a city. We don’t know where the money’s going. We have asked numerous times for gas cards to be put in each car and to be able to check mileage. We’ve gotten nowhere. That is another reason why we need a checks and balances.”

Compton also complained about Martin Tourism, stating that people need to know where those funds are being spent.

“There’s things that you all, we all, need answers to and we need clarity. We don’t need this, ‘It’s none of your business. We can’t tell you. Or, go to a meeting and you don’t even approve an agenda. ...I’ve asked about POs (purchase orders). I asked about invoices. I can’t get anything. So, this town has to change some how, some way,” she said.

She reported she was told to get a copy of the city budget from the newspaper, and she complained about other financial problems in the city.

“Folks, we’re running on Helter-Skelter, which is not good,” she said. “I’m not saying anybody is doing anything wrong, but let’s put it out there. Let’s have clarity, and let’s do what is best for the town of Martin. If we have to pay a little bit more for water, then we have to pay a little bit more, then I think people would do that. If we have to separate the city from the water, then that’s fine.”

Resident Oscar Rice explained that school boards that have financial issues are taken over by the Kentucky Department of Education. He asked why there is no entity that does that for cities when they are struggling. He also asked about the steps it would take to report issues with the Kentucky Attorney General’s office.

That’s when another audience member brought up the need for new leadership in the city.

“Well, Bonita, let’s bring up the elephant in the room right now,” said Melinda Craft, owner of Fatboys. “We’ve got an election year. We’re not getting things done in this city at all with the leadership, and I don’t mean council people ... We need some leadership to step up and take this town over and make a difference. Somebody who cares, somebody who wants to step in make a change.”

Compton agreed.

“I think that’s exactly what needs to be done. We need clarity. It is our town and as far as the annexation ... forget annexation, forget it. That should be the farthest thing from the City of Martin’s mind right now,” she said. The audience applauded.

One attendee shouted, “Bonita for mayor.”  

Craft told the Floyd Chronicle and Times that she was born and raised in Martin and got involved in this meeting because she wants to be able to keep her business there.

“It’s time for new leadership. It’s time to get something moving for the city,” she said. “I pay big taxes in this town. We have a tourism tax that every time someone comes in here and eats, they get charged with a tax on their food bill. We have a 3% alcohol tax. I have to put that on with a 6%. I’m taxed to death in this town and they’re not giving me nothing in return. So, they either change or I have to move this business and take it somewhere else.”

She said she brought the business to Martin instead of Prestonsburg, where she lives, because “the community needed it.”

Sharon Caudill, Claire Akers and Imogene Robinson reported that they each quit their terms on the Martin Tourism Commission this week. Caudill reported that she also quit her job as assistant city clerk in Martin.

“I just don’t want to deal with the pressure and the stress that’s come from working with the city and being on the tourism board,” Caudill said.

Robinson, who has served with tourism for years, said, “I don’t want to be associated with something that will not be legit, could be false, and I could be drug into something that I know nothing about, and I’d rather keep myself out and make sure I’m going to stay honest.”

Akers said “things are coming out” with the tourism commission and they quit because they didn’t want to be involved in it.

“They are things that we don’t feel like should be done by tourism,” she said.

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