Tuesday, February 28, 2017 - Updated: 3:31 PM
Nearly an hour of the Marshall County Fiscal Court meeting last week was spent discussing cooperation between the county and Benton, debating the validity and intent of a 27-year-old inter-local agreement that has been the basis of cooperation in the past.
Issues between the county and the city became apparent in Nov. when cooperation between the two halted. During a Benton—Marshall County Industrial Board Meeting, information surfaced that the city, which had previously agreed to absorb the cost of water lines to the new stave mill off Hwy. 58, had reneged on the agreement and insisted the industrial board not only pay for the materials of the job but also cover the cost of labor. At that time, according to Deputy Judge Executive Brad Warning and Mayor Rita Dotson, the change occurred after the county refused to haul the city’s salt unless the city paid for the labor of the road department crew.
In Nov. Dotson told The Tribune-Courier she was disappointed and shocked by the decision, adding that all three cities, who have a history of working hand-in-hand and cooperatively with the county, would now have to pay $108 per hour to have salt hauled, which is something that had been covered in the past by the taxpayers’ contributions to the county’s coffers.
During the same interview she defended her stance saying, “Apparently, Judge Neal and Deputy Judge Warning would like to spotlight this and say I was upset because they wouldn’t deliver salt ‘for free’ to the city, but this goes way beyond the salt issue. Since the citizens of Benton paid in excess of $3.5 million of their hard earned dollars to the county in taxes this past year, I can’t figure out the ‘free’ part. The citizens that pay these taxes are the taxpayers that Warning was referring to. Benton, Hardin and Calvert City are Marshall County. We expect minimal cooperation for our tax dollars.”
Dotson pointed toward an inter-local agreement that she said had, for more than two decades, been upheld by both entities, which allowed for the cities and the county to share resources in such situations as when the county and city jointly purchase salt and it’s delivered to the same place where both entities have to pick it up and the county picks up not only its own but also the city’s, because the city doesn’t have sufficient equipment and would have to pay an outside entity.
Neither the county nor the city had publicly addressed the matter again until last week when Judge-Executive Kevin Neal said he wanted to discuss what he had been researching and he believed there were residents who were under the wrong impression: that he’s not willing to work with or assist the city. He acknowledged receiving a letter from Benton City Attorney Zach Brien in late Nov. that asked if the county was, in the future, going to abide by the inter-local agreement of cooperation.
“The accountability of the county’s budget and dollars, I felt that we need to maintain accountability on those tax dollars the best that we could. A mayor calling the road department to do business outside the Fiscal Court or my office is not good business. I wouldn’t do that and I wouldn’t expect it from any other elected official or private citizen,” Neal said. “So my response was nothing, which generated a Jan. 18 response this year from the city attorney to the county attorney.”
Neal said in the follow-up letter, also from Brien, the city again requested the county make its position clear regarding the inter-local agreement and whether it’s viewed as valid, stating “more than two decades of evidence that both sides have honored the agreement” and “the county’s position will determine the city’s course of action and handling of inter-local issues going forward.” The letter, which Neal read aloud in court, expressed the hope of reaching a resolution without having to address the matter in an open meeting but advised the city would address it publicly if they continued to receive no response.
Neal said, “About two weeks ago I started looking into these inter-local agreements because this just kept festering. I know that the mayor had talked to the county commissioners. There are individuals who feel or have been told that county commissioners are in support of this agreement and it concerns me because you know there’s been nothing discussed. This is the first that we’ve discussed this issue in open court.”
Neal questioned Brien regarding the validity of the agreement and produced a letter from the Attorney General’s Office (AGO) dated in 1990 sent to then-county attorney Missy Moss stating the agreements were not acceptable and therefore not valid due to a number of reasons including language that was “too general and non-specific.” He said the letters showed there were at least four attempts made between Benton and the county to get an inter-local agreement such as the one referenced by Dotson but all of them were shot down due to the same reasons. He said after that, the letters stopped, as it seemed the attempts at a formal agreement stopped.
Neal said, “My concern is that we’re being held accountable to a document that I don’t think too many people know the background to it. There may have been two decades of evidence to show that the county and the cities have worked together. I don’t think that’s ever been a question out of my office but I do question the legalities of how we do business going forward. Under [KRS] 65.210 to 65.300 it outlines how we do business and that’s what I fully intend to do and I’m not going to bring to the Fiscal Court something that is non-specific and that the Attorney General doesn’t approve.
Brien thanked Neal and the commissioners for their time, apologizing for “wasting the court’s time” but reiterating the city had attempted on two occasions, in Nov. and in Jan., to communicate with the county, both of which were met with silence other than one meeting with County Attorney Jeff Edwards following the Nov. letter.
“Jeff and I sat down, we discussed this, we discussed what we both knew about the history of this agreement and we both had unanswered questions at that time. Now since I never got a response, as you stated your response was nothing, was silence, I again sent my letter that you read in Jan. trying to spur this conversation. I apologize for wasting the court’s time today but this is the conversation I’ve been attempting to have so we can get information so that we can identify the way that we need to work together in the future if the prior process has been inept,” he said.
Neal advised Brien return to the city’s elected officials and discuss the facts that he uncovered and presented in court before attempting further communication with the county. He said the county would be willing to work with the city, but only when the business was conducted in such a way that was supported by Kentucky Revised Statutes.
“The question of the county, when you say, ‘the county,’ that’s me, alright, in your letters. The fact that the accusation that I’m not going to support the cities is ridiculous. We’re going to support the cities where support is needed but we’re going to do it by statute and we’re going to do it the right way,” Neal said. “We’re going to present it in open court so that the people can hear and see what’s going on with their tax dollars with the elected officials and myself. That’s the right way to do business and that’s the way we’re going to do business and I hope I’ve cleared that up for you and the mayor.”
Brien said he believed Neal was “pigeon-holing a little bit” regarding the validity of the agreement and said all he’s been requesting for months is a conversation and some cooperation, sharing information and identifying a solution for future endeavors.
Brien said, “This is the type of conversation we’ve been trying to have because there’s also public perception here that’s been circulating throughout the city and the county that the county has been providing services to the City of Benton for free; when the City of Benton workers and residents thereof pay millions of dollars in taxes and provide a police presence outside the city limits and provide utility work and provide smaller snow-plowing, those aren’t ‘free’ services and we hope to continue that cooperation, we just need to know the terms of that since the terms are changing.”
Commissioners Rick Cocke and Bob Gold spoke in favor of finding a way to work cooperatively with the cities saying, “We need to fix it.” Commissioner Johnny Bowlin was absent from the meeting.
Cocke said, “I don’t have to have a piece of paper to realize that Bob Gold and Johnny Bowlin and Rick Cocke and Kevin Neal are elected by every taxpaying citizen in Marshall County, whether they’re incorporated Benton or incorporated Calvert City or incorporated Hardin, they are still Marshall County taxpayers and the cooperation is imperative between those cities and those entities in this county. I think we need to work together with our resources that we have; we as a county often ask the state of Kentucky to help us with big projects that we can’t handle ourselves and we would be totally lost without that. I fought the battle at Calvert City for 26 years and I felt sometimes that, ‘What are the taxpayers of the incorporated Calvert City getting for their Marshall County tax dollars that they pay?’ We all work for the same people, the taxpayers of Marshall County, and when we can’t cooperate and sit down and communicate, they’re the ones that suffer. ”
Cocke suggested the county, for the first time in 26 years, invite the council from all three cities to meet in the same place as the county, invite the media and discuss the issues at hand. He said he thought it would be beneficial to get everyone “eyeball to eyeball” instead of leaving all communication to the attorneys, which might result in better communication and allow them to “pour water over the fire instead of gasoline.”