Willie Sawyers

Willie Sawyers, Publisher

We had been hearing grumbling for months from organizations who weren’t getting their money from the county as usual. They didn’t know why. They would ask us. We didn’t know either. So, we set out two weeks ago to find out why the county doesn’t have any money.

It didn’t take us long to find out a troubling fact: Many of the people who should have thorough knowledge of the county’s finances were not aware, or chose to ignore, the serious financial condition facing the county. Several, like the county judge and magistrates, are paid to know.

Our story quickly grew legs, arms and tentacles and started growing at an enormous rate. It eventually spread to layoffs, cutbacks, cancellations, questionable spending, boondoggles, and unpaid bills.

The monster now encompasses the entire county. It sure is an ugly thing.

The six-page special section that we produced last Friday on the financial pinch answered a lot of questions and exposed a lot of problems. It also posed a few unanswered questions. We’ll try to find the answers to those as best we can as the crisis deepens in the coming weeks.

It has been extremely difficult to get a true picture of the county’s financial condition because the information coming from County-Judge Executive Lawrence Kuhl’s office has been incomplete and confusing. Kuhl maintained on several occasions that the county was simply having cash flow problems. But it is a lot more serious than that. The county doesn’t have enough period and hasn’t managed it effectively to prevent layoffs and massive cutbacks to local organizations and civic groups.

We had to go the extraordinary length of filing an Open Records Request just to get a copy of the fiscal 2006-07 budget. Not that it made any difference for us to see it. Money can be budgeted, but that doesn’t mean it will be appropriated, as many organizations who rely on county funds have found out the past few months. Some, like the dispatch center, Firemen’s Alliance and DARE program have received only part of what was approved in the current budget.

Perhaps Kuhl didn’t want to divulge the true nature of the crisis in hopes it would improve. He always tries to put a positive spin on things, and he did parcel out the tight funds as they became available. But in the end, his lack of candor about the situation deepened the surprise and outrage over the proposed cutbacks.

Kuhl, as a former banker and businessman, vowed to run the county like a business, and he should know never to keep important financial information from the owners, in this case, the taxpayers of Laurel County.

The magistrates also deserve to be questioned about the financial crisis because they have overall voting control of the budget. Most counties are facing increasing jail and insurance costs so those could have been mitigated with better strategic planning.

But to several magistrates, strategic planning means finding the best way to blame Kuhl for the financial mess or figuring out when it’s their turn to work the road crew.

There’s plenty of blame to go around on the Fiscal Court, but the poor little office manager who is taking the blame for the cost overruns at the new Emergency Operations Center is way down on the list.

Construction of the EOC building went way over budget, ostensibly without the knowledge of Kuhl or Public Safety Director Brian Reams, and left a host of unpaid bills to local vendors. The project could be one of the worst examples of fiscal mismanagement this county has seen in some time. It also points to a troubling lack of financial control plaguing this administration.

The monster grew another tentacle Monday when it was revealed the county will have to scrap its recycling program on June 30 because of the layoffs. Soon, there may be plastic bags, newspapers and tin cans rolling along the highways, and perhaps a stray dog or two.

This thing gets uglier by the minute.



Publisher Willie Sawyers can be reached by e-mail at wsawyers@sentinel-echo.com.

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