by Cris Ritchie — Editor
HAZARD – A significant shortfall in revenue from tax collection is being blamed as Sheriff Les Burgett expects to cut his staff by more than half later this week, while the county government is also looking to cut back.
The sheriff’s office is tasked with local tax collection, and for that service the office receives a commission which helps fund its operations. This year, Burgett said, that commission has plummeted, and as a result he will issue layoffs to 15 employees, which will include office and court security workers along with road deputies.
“To cut employees and cut services is something I’ve never had to do, and it’s directly related back to the coal business,” Burgett said, citing coal companies that have scaled back production in the county and laid off employees in the past two years.
Those cutbacks in the coal industry are now trickling down to the rest of the economy, Burgett continued, and as people lose their jobs or businesses close, tax collections are declining as well. The sheriff’s office collected $115,000 in delinquent tax commissions last year, but only $20,000 so far this year, noted Chief Deputy Tony Eversole.
“As the coal business goes down, we’re all going to feel the effects of it,” Burgett said.
This round of layoffs will necessarily have effects on the services the sheriff offers. At present, the office averages five to six motorist assists each day along with serving papers, but that’s something the office will not be able to do as much. Additionally, Eversole said the sheriff’s office will no longer serve as the primary responder to calls made in the county, as Burgett will hand over those responsibilities on a full time basis to the Kentucky State Police. At present, the sheriff’s office serves as the primary responder between 6 a.m. and 4 p.m. each day.
A possible solution in the form of coal severance taxes also seems unlikely. Eversole noted $100,000 in severance funds had been allotted to the sheriff’s office which could have helped in preventing these layoffs, however it is unclear as to whether that money will be available from the state considering a decline in coal severance funds statewide.
“If we could get the funds we’ve already been promised we’d be fine,” he said.
Burgett added that coal-producing counties should receive money promised to them, rather than the state allowing counties outside of the coalfields to benefit. He specifically took aim at a project in Fayette County in which $2.5 million in coal severance has been set aside to renovate Rupp Arena.
“They want to put [$2.5 million] into Rupp Arena, it’s not fair and it’s just not right,” Burgett said. “It’s a shame that they take our coal severance money and put it into these counties that are not coal-producing.”
Burgett said he expects to issue the layoffs on Thursday, adding he hopes this will be a temporary measure and employees can be re-hired once his office begins collecting taxes again in October. But in the meantime, he said his office will be available to help the county’s residents as much as possible.
“What we have left as far as employees, we’re going to continue to do everything we can to serve our county and our communities in any way we can, but it will be a lot less because we’ll have a lot less to work with,” he said.
Perry County Judge-Executive Denny Ray Noble said a decline of approximately $400,000 in property taxes, along with a $1.6 million decline in coal severance, are also having an effect on county government as he expects to cut four positions, including both officers with the Perry County Police Department and two office positions in the old courthouse.
While the cut in coal severance taxes was something Noble has previously said he anticipated, the loss of property taxes wasn’t as expected. In one instance the closing of a local coal mine cost both the county and sheriff approximately $30,000 in revenue.
“Every time a coal miner gets laid off, there are three people that gets affected by it,” Noble said. “It’s the same thing here. When a coal company shuts down, you’re not only affected by the coal company shutting down and coal severance, we’ve come to find out we’re affected by the property tax.”
Noble said he hopes another operator will step in to purchase that particular company which would result in those back property taxes being paid. But for now, he’s looking to cut back on certain services, such as any new bridge projects while also cutting back on the amount of gravel the county will spread. He did note, however, no ongoing water project will be affected as funding for that work has already been secured.
Another issue the county currently faces which adds to uncertainty is state funding, which is usually sent to the county by the middle of July, has not been recieved. Additionally, since 2014 is an election year, by law Noble will be required to hold two-thirds of the county budget for the county judge candidate who wins that election.
Noble said they are looking at different avenues to cut costs, from different monitoring systems for home incarceration of county inmates to insurance and the contract at the justice center.
“We have to cut back some,” he said. “When you go from almost $14 million (in the county budget) to $11 million you feel it. And we’re starting to cut back now.”