Judge-executives from Kentucky's coal-producing counties traveled to Frankfort on Tuesday to lobby state legislators into backing a proposal that would allow coal counties to receive 100% of their coal severance money.

Among more than 17 delegates of the Judges of the Coal Producing Counties, loosely affiliated with the Kentucky Coal Coalition, were Daviess County Judge-Executive Al Mattingly, Ohio County Judge-Executive David Johnston and newly appointed McLean County Judge-Executive Edward West.

"This is the third meeting that members of the coal coalition has had with members of the General Assembly," Mattingly said. "We spoke with the chairman (Rep. Jim Stewart)) of the House Budget Review Sub-Committee on General Government, we spoke with Chris McDaniel chair of the Senate A & R Committee, (and) Gov. (Matt) Bevin as well a joint group of senators and representatives led by our own (Rep.) Suzanne Miles."

The purpose of the meeting, especially in the face of dwindling tax revenue from coal statewide, was to lobby state officials into joining the cause of coal-counties receiving 100% of coal severance tax money. As it currently stands, severance funds are parcelled out to various projects as well as included in the state budget, leaving coal-counties receiving only a portion of those funds. For many counties, especially some of the smaller ones in the western part of the state and many in Eastern Kentucky, the issue surrounding coal severance is quickly becoming a budgetary crisis, Mattingly said.

"Statewide, there are probably 20 counties where this issue is a crisis," he said. "We are losing that revenue because the mines are closing, in many communities, those jobs are the highest paying in their respective regions. Many counties are experiencing a loss in tax revenue. People are leaving the county, not buying property and some have had to suspend basic services because their budgets have been hit hard by the lack of coal revenue."

Daviess County receives roughly $1 million annually in coal severance. A majority of those funds, Mattingly said, go toward roads.

"In terms of roads, that is almost 20 miles," he said. "We have also used those funds to offset funds for sewer extensions and water lines to the more rural parts of Daviess County. If those funds were no longer available, we could manage our way through it. It would certainly cause some belt-tightening. Our goal was to simply impress on them on how important these monies are. The governor committed verbally that he would return 100% of it in his budget, however, the governor only proposes the budget, I have never seen a proposed budget be the same in April as it was in January."

Ohio County receives roughly $2 million and is similar to Daviess County in that those funds aid in development measures. However, without those funds, the county would have difficulty finding money for various projects, Johnston said.

"That money is very important," he said. "It isn't everything to us, but it allows for advancement and progressive projects. We wouldn't need it to operate county government, but without it, we wouldn't be able to buy equipment for parks, police cars, road equipment for the road department, (or) renovate the courthouse and the community center. We couldn't do a lot without those funds.

"It would only be the mandated functions that we would be able to provide. For smaller counties, they are having troubles funding jails, animal control, the sheriff's department; all of those things mandated to the county to do. We are on the verge of a crisis and at best, we will just be postponing the inevitable when we will be completely without those funds one day. This will hopefully give us time to prepare for when that money is gone."

For McLean County, which budgeted $339,000 of severance funds for fiscal year 1919-20, those funds, especially considering the county's annual budget, have a much greater impact than they do in larger counties.

"We are an agriculture-based community, that is no secret," West said. We have very little industry aside from farming and our two coal mines. Other than that, industry is virtually non-existent. A lot of these small communities are in the same shape we are in. People are leaving, which means your tax base is declining and yet the cost for services stays the same for vital government services. You end up digging a hole like my predecessor. We have to use some of that to pay back past debts from the previous administration."

For McLean County, unlike many similar counties, coal is starting to grow, he said.

"Unlike most that are watching coal disappear, we are growing, but once that money is gone, it will pull the rug out," he said. "Some counties don't have their own 911 services and ambulances. We luckily still have those, but we still provide the services they expect and deserve and that money makes it possible. Webster County's only mine just shut down. McLean's second just started going online, so our money should be on the uptick."

While coal-counties are working diligently to secure 100% of severance funds, the future of this extremely complicated issue will rest on the shoulders of legislators, Rep. Susanne Miles said.

"The money is really important," she said. "The point of the severance funds were to help counties replenish opportunities to prepare for when that money no longer exists. It is important to get as much back as we can. There is growing support for the money, but not every county is a coal-county, which is where the issue gets complicated. The biggest battle is to convince non-coal counties to let that money go back to coal counties.

"Right now, part of the money goes to the state, the counties, the impact counties and things like that. The governor has made a commitment, but at the end of the day, that money will have to come from somewhere else. In most counties, that money has decreased because there is less coal.

"We need to figure out a way to make sure that Kentucky coal stays competitive. It will come down to the legislators that represent coal-counties convincing those from non-coal areas to support them. We are working very hard to make it happen."

Jacob Mulliken, 270-228-2837, jmulliken@messenger-inquirer.com

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