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‘They’re cutting everything’: As coal disappears, Appalachians lose access to basic services

Posted By Peter
Date Monday, 4 March 2019, at 6:42 a.m.

In early February, Martin County, Kentucky Sheriff John Kirk took to Facebook to announce that his office was unable to continue providing law enforcement, warning residents to protect themselves instead.

“I have had to operate the last little bit with just myself and one other paid deputy. There are volunteers that help when they can,” he wrote. “I am going to have to cut even more tomorrow. I have no choice. I can’t expect people to work if I can’t pay them.”

The lack of funding Kirk faces is an acute example of a growing crisis confronting the Central Appalachian states of Kentucky, Virginia, and West Virginia. A decline in global demand for coal, plus competition from natural gas and renewables, has decimated the market and drastically reduced coal severance taxes, the fees coal companies pay to counties for extracting coal out of the ground.

With counties stripped bare of their once bounteous cash flows from the coal industry, the revenue squeeze is exposing financial mismanagement, worsening a dire economic situation, and resulting in partial government shutdowns and cutbacks in core government services like infrastructure, education, and healthcare.

“It’s a tough time to be in a small community that has relied for so many years on coal for its main economic driver,” said Rep. Angie Hatton, who represents Letcher County and part of Pike County in the Kentucky House of Representatives. “They’re cutting everything. We have laid off employees. Road maintenance, garbage service, water. Everything.”

Some Eastern Kentucky and West Virginia counties, for instance, lack funding to deliver drinkable water to residents. In Floyd County, Kentucky, a new school sits unused because of the lack of water pressure. Knott County, Kentucky approved a partial government shutdown in January, and county officials plan to cut a program that delivers meals to poor senior citizens as an alternative to raising taxes.

The funding problems are exacerbated by financial mismanagement. Auditors have accused administrators in Elliott and Perry County, Kentucky of mismanaging county funds in the last few years, and prosecutors charged officials in Clay, Morgan, and Union counties with corruption-related crimes.

“You can have low-level corruption and bad management, and things go along fine as long as you have coal severance money coming in to right the ship,” said Mary Cromer, a lawyer with the Appalachian Citizens’ Law Center who represents the Martin County Concerned Citizens. “But we’re in the position now where the coal severance money is gone.”

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