The City of Martin is “bleeding out,” officials said this week, and there are no easy answers.
With the redevelopment project underway in Martin, the city has been experiencing repeated water outages. In December, water outages caused Floyd County schools to move students out of the Renaissance Learning Center on Varia Mountain, and this week, residents, businesses and city hall have been without water for several days.
A manager at Long John Silvers reported her business closed at about noon on Monday and was closed again on Tuesday.
At a meeting Tuesday, Mayor Sam Howell suggested the problem lies in the Martin Redevelopment Project, which is being overseen by the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers. He said the city does not have the funds it needs to make waterline repairs, and suggested that the city end the project altogether. At one point, audience member Terry Thornsberry suggested the project be handed to the Floyd County Fiscal Court, the project agent, and several Martin officials agreed, saying the county has already taken the project over.
The meeting opened with Kevin Howard of Summit Engineering requesting that the city amend a contract he said the city approved last summer for the waterline extension for RLC. The company is seeking to provide construction oversight on behalf of the city — to ensure the design and placement of water and wastewater infrastructure added during the redevelopment is beneficial to the city.
The council tabled the request, however, after City Attorney Doug Adams voiced concerns. He explained that the Corps has not yet finalized its contract and it would be premature to approve one with Summit until that document is reviewed.
Mike Johnson and Brandon Moore of the U.S. Corps of Engineers gave city officials an update on the redevelopment.
Johnson reported the Corps is finalizing an amended contract for the project that details the work the Corps and its contractors will complete and Martin’s responsibilities in the project.
Johnson explained that Martin needs someone overseeing the construction on the city’s behalf and explained the city’s responsibilities.
“Any work that we agree that you’re going to do, you actually do it,” Johnson said, reading a list of obligations he said would be in the agreement. “Let us know before you do the work. If you need permits, licensures, things of that nature, do it, just do it legal. Let us know if you run into anything in the field.”
He also explained that the Corps can pay Martin monthly for work the city does related to the project. He said the city would be required to keep detailed records and send an invoice to the Corps for those reimbursements. The original contract provided Martin a lump sum for work completed, he said.
“We ask you to keep detailed records,” he said. “The federal government just doesn’t like to give out cash. We have to have, you know, supporting backup, like pay requests, what you actually did.”
He said the city would have to agree that it would incorporate all items built during the redevelopment.
“If you’re making a waterline, you agree that you’ll operate and maintain it,” he said. “And when we’re done, it’s always going to be a waterline.”
He said Martin will convey properties to the Floyd County Fiscal Court, and those properties would then be transferred to Martin after the work is completed.
Adams complained that the city has waited “years upon years” for deeds to the fire department and other buildings constructed as part of the project. Johnson confirmed deeds would be simultaneously transferred back to Martin.
Council Member James Reynolds asked who would be responsible for repairing waterlines damaged during the construction.
“You don’t own it until we’re done, okay, so if it gets damaged during construction while we’re working, typically, that would be our contractor’s problem to fix,” Johnson told him.
Howell refuted that statement.
“We’re going to eat it until they fix it, two years later,” he said. “We’re going to eat it until they fix it, though, right?”
He was referring to a leak he reported last year on Varia Mountain. He said a waterline leaked from Sept. 2018 until Aug. 2019 after the Corps damaged a city waterline while connecting to it. Howard, however, suggested that an old line have been “poorly plugged” and told the council that the city could file for damages with contractor’s insurance company. He said the leak occurred seven months after the contractor installed the connector.
“So what do we do in the meantime? We just suck it up?” Howell said. He told Howard the city “ain’t got that kind of time” for a claims process.
Howard mentioned finding the same line on a 1935 utilities map for Martin. Project Manager Brandon Moore emphasized that the work on that old line was not done by a Corps contractor.
Johnson said the Corps would pay for “properly allocable” charges. He said if problems like that arise, the city would be required to make a claim and if the Corps does not agree it was the agency’s fault, they could negotiate or go to court.
Johnson said that the Corps will not be able to fix “all the town’s problems” because the town is bigger than the project itself.
Howell interrupted him.
“I have asked the city attorney to draft a letter to you guys, to the congressman, to the fiscal court, for the council to vote on to discontinue this project,” Howell said. “Now, that may not be legal, I’ll let explain on that, but I’ve asked him to do that because we’re just, we’re bleeding out. Nobody’s trying to help us. So, I’d assume them pack up and hit the road.”
Other council members agreed.
“Well, it’s been going on for 15 years. How long does it have to go on before we get the town fixed,” Gayheart said.
Johnson assured officials that the project was delayed because of lack of funding and the Corps has “got the money in the bank now” to finish it.
Howell said, “But if we discontinued it, legally, if we can stop it, you’ll just move out. We don’t care. Hell, it’s dead now. You’ve killed it. Not you, personally. The Corps has killed it. And I’d just assume you’d pack up and get out of here.”
When Johnson tried to respond, Howell interrupted him again.
“But you’ve got to look at our train of thought. You ain’t sitting down there on that backhoe and it 30 degrees outside … trying to fix this,” Howell said. “Nobody else is.”
Johnson suggested building the new infrastructure would help. Moore emphasized the funding.
“I do realize …. I have learned about the history, it’s been years, decades at this point from when this started, right? So, part of that is incremental funding,” Moore said. “The Corps will get started on certain things, run out of money, wait for Congress to give us more, so, in the meantime, the town, city, has been kind of languishing with this over your head … so I understand that part of it.”
He continued, “But the opportunity that we have is that we have fully funded to completion. So that whole history, 20 years, and what we’ve been waiting on with the benefits of this project, we have the money to complete it now.”
He said the project would be completed in five years. It was supposed to be finished years ago.
Reynolds said council members just want to be able to keep the city afloat, noting when waterline problems arise the city does not have the funds to fix them. He said the water problems are hurting the police and fire departments.
“We just we need some assistance, if it’s possible,” he said.
The redevelopment caused businesses and residents to move out of the downtown area, depleting the city’s tax base and funds it receives for utilities.
“Besides us not having water in our homes and things, it’s causing businesses to suffer, too,” Council Member April Gayheart said. “And then, eventually, if this keeps happening, what do you think’s going to happen? People are going to leave like they did before when you all ran them off to start with. And that happened to begin with. If you’d done your project the way you should have done it, instead of bass-ackwards, then it would have been done right.”
Howell said the city utilities are “bleeding out” and because of that, the city is “starting to bleed out.”
“Then we start cutting services. That’s the next step,” he said.
When Council Member Bonita Compton asked why the council has not received financial reports for city utilities in three months, she was told the computer system is down.
“Why haven’t we got it out in three months?” she asked.
Howell told her, “We’re bled out. Hell. We ain’t got the money to do it.”
Moore told council members the Corps is “committed to delivering” on this project.
After Tuesday’s meeting, business owner Deanna Mullins created a Facebook group entitled, “Take Martin Kentucky Back.” The group requested that all Martin business owners meet at Fatboys at 6 p.m. on Feb. 5 to “get on the same page on the next steps for the future of Martin.”
All city council members were present at the meeting. The only actions taken were approving the agenda and meeting minutes from Nov. 26. Compton voted no and Gayheart abstained from approval of the minutes. The council discussed “possible litigation” in closed session for 20 minutes. No action was taken.