“It's a cold, hard economic fact,” said council member Bill Hodges. “There is no better reason to start conversations concerning this matter than now. Increased costs and a loss of revenue are going to eventually force us into this. We should start now, because the longer we wait the more expensive it's going to get on our citizens.”
The issue of merger among the towns of Cumberland, Benham and Lynch surfaced amidst discussion pertaining to the city's water woes. Mayor Carl Hatfield updated council members on what he referred to as a recent “emergency situation” with the town's water plant.
Last Thursday, a main intake pump stopped working, causing the plant's water level to drop alarmingly low. Past flooding occurrences washed off the pump's lid, allowing debris to get trapped. The plant's water level dropped to 8 feet, according to Hatfield. A normal level reading should be 28 feet.
Currently, the plant's water level is up to 21 feet.
“We were losing 2 feet of water every eight hours,” Hatfield said. “We're talking about 175,000 gallons every 10 hours. We've got a loaner pump installed right now until a new one can be built.”
Hatfield also informed council members that the new pump is going to cost the city $20,000, which, he pointed out, includes other installation expenditures.
Hodges didn't like the unexpected expense, especially since, as he brought up during the meeting, that $7,000 was spent on a water plant pump less than three years ago.
“We're in a tough spot,” Hodges said. “Any town would be with it's water supply in jeopardy.”
That's when Hodges brought up the issue of merger. He said he didn't know what the answer was going to be as long as there were three water plants and three sewage systems operating in the Tri-Cities. That statement received an “amen” from council member Paul Browning III.
“I've got an answer,” Hatfield responded.
The mayor went on to say that the towns of Benham and Lynch needed to get on board with his city on the merger issue in order for the entire Tri-City area to benefit from adequate services.
“Our plants need to be consolidated,” Hatfield said. “If they don't want this to happen, then they can go their own way and we'll go our way.”
Hatfield voiced his frustrations over money he said was available for serious upgrades to be made to his town's water plant but was also tied up until an “interconnect study” could be completed in the Tri-Cities. Hatfield said $1.1 million had been provided by Rural Water of the Cumberland Valley Area Development District, but that the money would not be released until a $100,000 “interconnect study” between Cumberland, Benham and Lynch concludes.
“That money is just laying idle,” Hatfield said. “It's not being utilized.”
The mayor, however, did confirm that, to his knowledge, the study began six months ago, but that the towns of Benham and Lynch had been reluctant to get involved because of possible mandated water rates that could be imposed. Hatfield said the towns “drug their feet” in getting started with the study.
Hodges didn't seem to be too enthusiastic about the study, even adding he didn't blame Benham and Lynch for their hesitant participation. He still advocated a merger, nonetheless.
“We can study these things until the cows come home,” Hodges said. “But it's like other things around here - we need some action.”
Hodges also said the merger shouldn't stop with city services. If the governments of the three towns are not merged into one, then the three entities, according to him, will fight over services, causing more hassles than solutions.
“I'm going to make a prediction here tonight,” Hodges said. “In 10 years, the cost of services is going to force Benham, Lynch and Cumberland to consolidate, unless there is a money tree that I don't know about...We can't keep passing these huge costs onto our citizens. We need efficient and innovative ways to provide services to our citizens. That's our duty...that's the only way progress can be made in the Tri-Cities is for these towns to band together as one government where we can not only provide services cheaper, but better.”
Hatfield also notified council members that the Black Mountain Utility District had expressed interest in tapping on as a paid water service customer. The council will be discussing charges for the company and also wants a BMUD representative to attend a future meeting to discuss their intentions.
“We're getting more customers,” Hatfield said. “And Cumberland needs the money to renovate its water plant. With the addition of Black Mountain Utilities and the expansion of services to the Letcher County line, which includes 900 customers, that's a considerable amount of customers.”
After the meeting, talk about merger continued among some of the council members. Browning said it's an issue that can no longer be ignored.
“We're going to have to find some common ground in order to survive,” Browning said. “Combining our services is an option that must be looked at, and, as far as combining our governments, that would be more of a long term goal. I believe Benham and Lynch can keep their own identities and be perceived as the historic towns they are, but we can write the checks as a Tri-City interlocal government.”
Council member Katherine Dixon said a merger would be “a wonderful thing,” but doesn't think it will happen soon.
“We're not at that stage yet,” Dixon said. “I really would like to see it, but we're not pointing in that direction. It seems as though each city is on their own agenda.”
Whether it's the area's services that are first combined, or their governments, council member Bill Powell said he liked to think that a Tri-City merger would eventually take place.
“I hope that someday it will happen,” Powell said.
Talk of placing the merger issue on a ballot and bringing it to a vote also took place briefly during the meeting.
“It's up to the people,” Hodges added. “It's not up to the councils or the mayors.”
In other business, the council:
-- passed a resolution to accept $38,000 in Municipal Road Aid discretionary bond money to pave a selected list of city streets;
-- set trick-or-treating hours for Halloween night from 5 p.m. to 7 p.m.;
-- agreed to help with city resident Gwen Bullock's complaint in which water services needed to be provided to a rental home she owns, but that a neighboring resident would not agree for an easement to allow the water lines to be properly connected. After a lengthy discussion of the problem, Hatfield agreed to meet with Bullock today to come up with a solution;
-- agreed to submit a letter to the state Department of Transportation, allowing a coal miners memorial sign to be erected at the head of KY 2006 toward Cloverlick, which runs by mining operations where David Morris and Russell Cole were killed. Morris' widow, Stella Morris, attended Tuesday's meeting, telling council members that the state had given the sign its approval, but that a letter was needed from the city officially documenting its permission for the endeavor.