Voters opted for a change in administration in November, electing Andy Beshear as the new governor, and, as he promised in the campaign, he replaced the Kentucky Board of Education.
At the inauguration, Beshear asked the state to “come together for the common good of all people.”
His staff has spent the first weeks of his administration weeding through numerous pardons and executive orders former Gov. Matt Bevin signed prior to being ousted by voters.
Bevin traveled to Floyd County several times during his campaign to announce funding awards and an executive order to reorganize the Justice Cabinet to reopen the prison in Wheelwright. State officials touted the creation of 200 jobs and hosted job fairs to recruit employees.
On his last day in office, Bevin signed a $41 million, 10-year lease with CoreCivic for the prison property. Members of the Capital Projects and Bond Oversight Committee, which oversees emergency repair funds for state properties and acquisitions, had not reviewed the lease, the Louisville Courier Journal reported.
‘By the grace of God’
Toddler found safe
Hundreds of people from Kentucky and other states embarked on an extensive search for a 22-month old Kenneth Howard who went missing in the woods near his home on Mother’s Day, May 12. The search, which was reported nationally, included hundreds of people leading five dog teams, helicopters, drones and other specialized equipment on 300 acres of property that borders the Floyd/Magoffin County line.
A team of rescuers from the Prestonsburg Fire Department found Howard in “remarkably good condition” on a ridge between about a mile from his home on May 15. Fire Chief Michael Brown said he was found “by the grace of God.”
The Southern Water and Sewer District struggled in 2019. The 2017 deal that led to the transfer of some of Southern’s system to the Prestonsburg Utilities Commission started because of “political pressure,” the Kentucky Public Service Commission learned, and Southern lost $386,000 because of leaks. The district reported a water loss rate of 62.5 percent in 2018.
All former Southern Water board members resigned in February, and were replaced by a board that hired Pikeville-based Utilities Management Group to manage the district.
The PSC opened an investigation into Southern Water and other utilities with high water loss in March and it also launched an investigation into former manager Dean Hall. He resigned and the PSC dropped the investigation into his alleged wrongdoings, but not before numerous allegations were raised. The PSC case disclosed credit card purchases at bars, restaurants and department stores.
Citing a “dire” financial situation, Southern borrowed $150,000 from the Floyd County Fiscal Court and sought a rate increase. In June, the PSC granted a temporary flat rate to Southern and encouraged the district to sell its assets or merge with another district.
In May, officials reported that Southern and PCUC were discussing a “complete unwinding” of the 2017 asset transfer, which is still not finalized.
In Nov., the PSC approved new rates for Southern that included a $5.25 surcharge to fund new meters. A federal grant was announced for those meters, but because the funds won’t be available for some time, the district is seeking financing for the $1.3 million meter replacement at this time.
BLES staff cheated on tests, KDE reports
In May, the Kentucky Department of Education issued a report, citing multiple violations during state testing at Betsy Layne Elementary, including evidence that staff “deliberately altered” answer sheets to help kids get higher scores. The investigation started, the KDE reported, because BLES ranked among the highest in the state for the number of testing “anomalies” that occurred there.
The report showed that “increases of wrong to right” erasures at BLES correlated with higher test scores in 2016, and that the school’s scores “continued to soar” in 2017, as the number of erasures increased.
The KDE invalidated the school’s test scores for 2017, and the school started the new school year with an entirely new leadership team.
The issues found in the report mirrored those highlighted in an audit the KDE released for Floyd County Schools in 2018. After that investigation, KDE required the district to be placed on a corrective action plan.
Storm kills one in Prestonsburg
In May, Michael Coleman, 61, of Pikeville, died in a storm that pummeled Prestonsburg. Officials reported that Coleman was driving on West Court Street with his fiancé when the storm blew the roof off the former Hock Shop building, landing on his vehicle and others parked on the road.
The National Weather Service reported the incident was caused by a downburst that carried winds of between 70 and 80 miles per hour.
The storm, which lasted only a few minutes, toppled trees onto houses and a car in Prestonsburg and West Prestonsburg. West Court Street was closed for weeks afterwards.
A year of chaos in Martin
The year was quite chaotic in Martin, where council meetings devolved into shouting matches between city leaders and community members and where city officials report the city has operated in a deficit all year.
The city council proposed annexing 800 acres in outlying communities in November 2018, sparking opposition from community groups and other local government bodies. The proposed ordinance changed at least three times. The ordinance announcing the city’s intent to annex 600 acres was approved at a special meeting on April 10, but the council has not addressed the matter since that time.
Community members packed city council meetings throughout the year, publicly questioning city finances and complaining. Council Member Eulene Ratliff resigned in March, and the council appointed Bonita Compton, who has also repeatedly raised questions and voiced complaints.
Martin failed to adopt a budget in 2019 and numerous city meetings have been cancelled this year. Officials appeared to attempt to alter the council’s June 25 meeting record. That meeting lasted nearly two hours, but the meeting minutes only contained one sentence: “Bonita Compton was advised by Attorney Doug Adams that the agenda could not be altered.” Adams refuted that sentence in July.
That month, law enforcement officials confirmed that they were investigating allegations against Martin Tourism Director Kris Rudder, who allegedly made racial slurs and threatened to kill Compton and another person. Officials reported, however, that no charges would be filed against Rudder.
Martin’s financial record-keeping was a mess in 2019. Check registers showed 670 instances where the same check numbers were used, missing checks, double payments to employees, double payment of bills and purchases recorded at restaurants, grocery stores, as well as purchases signed by people who are not employed by the city. It was also revealed that the employees and their family members used cell phones provided on the city’s plan and it was alleged that gas cards were inappropriately used.
The city has been operating in the red all year, according to city check registers, with negative balances reported repeatedly. In August, Compton reported a $55,000 deficit over the past month.
In addition to these problems, the city also received six Open Records Decisions from the Kentucky Attorney General, for failing to follow the Open Records Act, as required. Martin business owner Terry Thornsberry filed a lawsuit against the city to enforce one Open Records Decision the attorney general issued. The Floyd County Chronicle and Times is still waiting for a response to an open records request it filed with the city in August for copies of check registers and bank statements.
PMC opens clinic in Prestonsburg
Local leaders, community members and officials turned out to celebrate the opening of Pikeville Medical Center’s new Prestonsburg Primary and Urgent Care Clinic in Prestonsburg in September.
Donovan Blackburn, Pikeville Medical Center Board of Directors vice president and CEO, reported that the hospital invested $3 million into the project. The hospital bought the property from Prestonsburg for more than $400,000.
Homeless shelter opens
After years of planning, fundraising and building, Floyd County’s homeless shelter opened in March on Ky. 122 near Martin.
The East Kentucky House of Hope, operated by Kentucky River Community Care, has helped more than 100 people this year. At the Dancing for Shelter fundraiser, held at the Mountain Arts Center in November, officials reported that it has served 131 clients and more than 60 clients found suitable housing. Volunteers who helped open the shelter were honored with the 2019 Floyd County Chamber of Commerce Community Service Award in May.
The acquisitions of 2019
Floyd County residents saw numerous changes at businesses that have served the county for decades this year.
The acquisitions started in January, when Trans-Star Ambulance, based in Prestonsburg, reported it would be bought by Mercy Ambulance of Evansville, doing business as American Medical Response.
Several local governments, including Wheelwright, Wayland, Prestonsburg and the Floyd County Fiscal Court have repeatedly complained about problems with ambulance response times in the county this year.
The sale was completed in April, when AMR announced it would operate under the name of Lifeguard Emergency Medical Service. Trans-Star had served Floyd County for more than 20 years.
The acquisitions continued in April, with the completion of the merger between First Commonwealth Bank and Peoples Bancorp. Peoples kicked off the merger by holding several “Pay it Forward” events, where bank officials bought lunch, paid for gasoline and bought groceries for people at local businesses. Peoples celebrated the renovations of its locations in Prestonsburg and Martin with ribbon cutting events in December. First Commonwealth Bank was Floyd County’s oldest bank.
Appalachian Regional Healthcare announced in August that it finalized the purchase of Highlands Regional Medical Center, which had also served the county for decades. In September, Appalachian Regional Healthcare hosted a ribbon cutting ceremony for Highlands ARH Regional Medical Center. Tim Hatfield stepped into the community CEO role there in October. The following month, the hospital agreed to be voluntarily annexed by Prestonsburg.
Demolition begins in Martin
Contractors hired by the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers started demolishing homes in Martin in October and officials confirmed that the low income housing facility will be rebuilt on Varia Mountain as part of the project.
Contractors demolished a home on Main Street, as well as three homes on Jenny’s Street. A church in that area was also slated to be demolished. The demolitions mark the beginning of the end of a project that started nearly two decades ago and was initially expected to be finished three years ago. In October, officials reported $66.8 million has been spent on the project and it was 74 percent complete.
Abe is on the move
In June, Floyd County Judge-Executive Robbie Williams reported that Jerry Flannery, the owner of Four J Development, bought the Abraham Lincoln statue and property previously owned by disbarred attorney Eric C. Conn and agreed to donate the statue.
Williams told the Floyd County Fiscal Court on June 18 that it would soon move to the Middle Creek National Battlefield. The Floyd County tourism commission added $30,000 for “Moving Abe” to its budget at the request of Williams. He reported moving the statue to the battlefield would cost up to $70,000.
The project is still pending.
The Appys announced
Officials with the Mountain Arts Center, Big Sandy Community and Technical College and Prestonsburg announced a new arts and entertainment awards program for the Appalachian region on Dec. 20.
Nominations for the Appalachian Arts & Entertainment Awards, or “The Appys,” will begin in Feb. 2020 and will be presented at an awards show at the MAC in March 2021.
Rally for education
Strife continued between Kentucky teachers and state government in 2019. In Floyd County, teachers took to the streets in March to hold a “rally for public education” to oppose legislation filed in support of private schools and other legislative matters impacting education.
The Floyd County Board of Education voted in July to give all employees a one percent raise.
Allen struggles with finances
Financial problems plagued Allen in 2019 because the city has not conducted an audit in more than a decade.
The Allen City Commission learned in June that the state would withhold funds because of its failure to file financial reports and audits — a problem that led the commission to slash its budget and move the city clerk and police chief to part time employees.
After that meeting, the city clerk resigned and the police chief resigned in September, via a letter that expressed concerns about how his affiliation with the city impacted his reputation. The city plans to interview clerk candidates in January.
The commission did not hire an auditor in 2019 and it has not sent out property tax bills, as required.
While dealing with these issues, the city also bid farewell to Commissioner Clyde Woods, 77, who died in October after serving the city for decades. Commissioner Elmer “Fudd” Parsons called Woods a “dear friend.”
Insurance tax returns with new administration
Under a new administration, the Floyd County Fiscal Court voted once again this year to implement an insurance premium tax.
On Jan. 7, the fiscal court voted to temporarily close the golf course, lay off employees and replace others, with newly-elected Judge-Executive Robbie Williams citing a shortfall for the next fiscal year. On Jan. 23, Williams proposed a $900,000 budget cut and a 4 percent insurance premium tax.
The fiscal court approved an ordinance implementing a new 4 percent insurance premium tax in Feb., with Magistrates Ronnie Akers and George Ousley voting against it.
At the time, the county was collecting a 6 percent insurance premium tax, but that tax was set to expire on July 1 because in June 2018, fiscal court members who had been ousted in the election voted to repeal it, effective on July 1, 2019.
Williams suggested that county workers would be laid off and the Martin Community Center would not reopen if the tax was not implemented. He and Magistrate Mark Crider explained that the fiscal court would reevaluate the need for the insurance premium tax annually.
Work on the community center is nearing completion, Williams reported in December. In August, officials reported the fiscal court has spent $100,000 on the repairs there.
In October, the fiscal court met in special session to approve pay raises for 46 long-time employees, with officials talking about the implementation of a new employee evaluation system.
The raises came about following a request on Aug. 28 by Floyd County Jailer Stuart “Bear” Halbert, who reported that raises approved when the fiscal court implemented a new administrative code in 2016 were never implemented at the jail.
No-bid purchases questioned at fiscal court
Questions about state bidding requirements were raised repeatedly in 2019 at Floyd Fiscal Court meetings, and they came to the forefront on Nov. 21, when Judge-Executive Robbie Williams issued a directive notifying all departments that purchases will no longer be permitted for any vendor that has already been paid $30,000 this fiscal year. The directive also prohibited gasoline purchases.
In October, the fiscal court went against advice of County Attorney Keith Bartley and approved buying a $20,000 truck from Pop’s Chevrolet. State law requires bids for purchases over $30,000, and, prior to that purchase, the fiscal court had bought other cars at Pop’s, partially with grant funding, bringing the total spent at the company to more than $30,000 this fiscal year. Bartley advised the fiscal court that bids were required for the $20,000 truck purchase because the county had already spent $30,000 with that vendor.
Magistrate Ronnie Akers brought the issue up again at a fiscal court meeting on Nov. 19. Williams and County Treasurer David Layne reported that they had been informed by state officials that bids were not required on the third truck purchase from Pop’s Chevrolet, but Bartley disagreed, saying those state officials are “dead wrong if that’s what they told you.”
When questioned by the newspaper, state officials cited a state law that defined “aggregate amount,” for the purposes of bidding as “items of like nature, function and use the need for which can reasonably be determined at the beginning of the fiscal year.”
Williams asked Bartley and Layne to work together to come up with answers to questions about bidding requirements that month. A special meeting was called on the topic in Dec., but it was cancelled.
In December, Williams reported that the directive he issued to stop payments is still pending, but noted that the gasoline prohibition was removed, per Bartley’s advice. He said the topic will be addressed by the fiscal court in the future.
Sheriff: 20 horses killed on a strip mine
In December, the Floyd County Sheriff’s Department launched an investigation into the apparent shooting deaths of 20 horses on a strip mine that stretches from Pike County to Daniels Creek and Cow Creek in Floyd County.
Dumas Rescue has been working to rescue six horses that remained on the strip mine after the shooting.
The case has made headlines nationally, prompting a $20,000 reward for information leading to the arrest and conviction of the person(s) responsible.
People with information are asked to call, (606) 886-6171.