By Greg Bird
2018 began much as 2017 ended – with bitterness, anger and discontent.
Citizens were growing increasingly disappointed over taxes, garbage, lack of leadership and other things as 2018 dawned. That wave of frustration washed in to May for the Primary Election, setting a tone of change for the last half of the year.
As the year closed down, it appeared there might be some cause for hope. A major announcement promising new jobs came in October, and the county would start the new year with a (mostly) new Fiscal Court.
Here is a look back at some of the stories a people that shaped 2018 for McCreary County.
The fight over the future of the McCreary County Extension Board continued in to 2018 and certainly had a more far-reaching effect than on everyone’s tax bills.
As the year began the beleaguered Board dug in their heels as the Fiscal Court began to take action to dissolve the Board and eliminate the tax passed the previous year. Frustration mounted on both sides over the tax, with supporters claiming the tax funding was needed to keep the Extension Service operating and arguing on behalf of the good that came of having the service in the county. Opponents were upset not only at the additional tax they would have to pay, but the way the tax was passed in the first place – with no word on the new levy until eight months after it was put in place.
The Fiscal Court, led by Magistrate Roger Phillips began taking steps to dissolve the Board through an ordinance, but the Extension Board was prepared to fight – filing legal action against the measure.
As the weeks dragged on, and a public hearing was held, it was clear that there was a huge divide among the citizens over the tax and service. Hundreds showed up to the hearing, with many offering tearful testimony of the benefits the Extension Service has provided them and their families, others worried about what would happen if the Board was shut down – would it close the service locally forever? But voices against the tax were present as well, stating the tax was too much and questioned supporting a service that only a few used.
Magistrate Jason Mann, seen as the deciding vote on the proposed ordinance, took a stand – declaring his vote would be based on number ratio of his constituents who wanted to keep the tax, over those who wanted it gone.
Living up to his word after the hearing, Mann met with the Board to hammer out a compromise deal, trading his vote on the dissolvement for a promise to lower the tax rate. The agreement lowered the rate by a small amount, leaving the Fiscal Court without a majority vote – ending the debate in June.
But the battle over the Extension Board had an impact in other areas of the county in 2018…most notably…
The 2018 Primary Election was one of the most contested, and certainly most contentious elections in recent memory.
Surprise candidates, angry words, accusations of political trickery and old feuds seemed to dominate social media and back-room talks. People seemed to grow frustrated with the new trend of political debate and took their opinions to the polls.
By the end of Primary Election night many incumbents found themselves on the loosing end, promising a new-look county government for the next four years.
Heading in to the General Election in November, many of the major races were already all but decided, but a few still were in contention during the much more civil political season.
In the end McCreary County chose a new look for its government moving forward: a new Judge-Executive, three new Magistrates, a new County Attorney, PVA, and three Constables will take office next week – looking to shape the next four years of the county’s development.
One of the major topics, particularly among the Sheriff’s candidates was…
In January 35-year-old Darren Kidd went missing from the area near his home in Pine Knot, sparking massive searches and conspiracy theories. Kidd’s body was eventually found less than four months later, and Sheriff Randy Waters reported no evidence of wrongdoing, but some people believe there is more to the disappearance and others in the County.
Two more young men were reported missing in 2018, Jeff Shepherd in March and William Cross in May, and neither have yet to be found.
Those cases help reignite interest in unsolved cases in McCreary County such as Christina Bussell, Roger King and many others.
2018 also marked the 20-year anniversary of the disappearance of Crystal Marler, a 15-year-old young woman who went missing in 1998. Marler’s remains were found in 2009, the case remains unsolved and the family continues to look for answers.
Another major story this year involved Norfolk Southern and the reported blocking on intersections in both McCreary and Pulaski counties. With multiple complaints from citizens, Sheriffs in both counties issued citations against the railroad company for the prolonged blockages, arguing safety of citizens is impeded by not being able to access roadways.
While Norfolk Southern representatives met with county officials to hopefully come to some sort of resolution, a lobbying group representing the railroad took the issue to federal court in an effort to block the citations, claiming the Interstate Commerce Act prohibits local governments from regulating the railways. Disappointingly, Attorney General Andy Beshear seemed to be more focused on an upcoming Governor’s race rather than fight for Kentucky citizens.
Both the local and federal cases are still pending in court with no resolution in sight.
One topic highly debated in the elections was the Jail.
Some candidates strongly advocated building a jail, or repairing the old facility, despite no available funding and the Department of Corrections bluntly stating the old building was unsuitable for use.
That issue was in no way settled to anyone’s satisfaction in May when the long awaited jail feasibility study was presented. More of a sales pitch from the firm conducting the study, the presentation showed the potential need for a jail and designs of what a new jail could look like. But with a price tag of over $10 million the study had no answers if McCreary County could afford it.
It was an interesting year in the McCreary County School District.
The year began with a renewed interest in school safety following the January shooting in Marshal County. Superintendent Mike Cash, along with school administrators and emergency service personnel met to revamp safety plans for the district. Many changes and improvements were made, including limiting access to school buildings to outsiders and security vestibules.
McCreary Central High School was recognized as a Bronze Medal School by the U.S. News and World Report. All local schools also showed improvement in most content areas in the annual accountability system when test scores were released in September.
District employees got welcome news this year when the McCreary County Board of Education voted to award 2-percent raises across the board, and followed that move with another raise, this one to Superintendent Cash in December.
Set back by 2017’s lack of public support for a nickel tax to replace roofs and build a new addition for the middle school, the Board took steps in August to fix the roofs by issuing bonds.
It wasn’t all positive news for the District this year as the Board was named in a federal lawsuit alleging bullying and discrimination. The Board denies the allegations and will fight the suit in court, with a trial expected in 2020.
The Board will also face the next year with two new members. Brandon Kidd, who had served eight years on the Board was defeated in the November election by Braxton King. Rhonda Armijo, who served four years, opted not to run again this year and will be replaced by Lori Foster in 2019.
There was some major news that could effect the economic development of McCreary County in the coming years.
One of the most important stories of the year could very well be the October announcement of a new company coming to Stearns. In partnership with OVC, Fibrotex USA, will be opening a new plant to manufacture state-of-the-art camouflage netting systems for the military.
The announcement should mean hundreds of new jobs added to the local economy.
A new bill passed by the Kentucky Legislature will siphon funds paid by the TVA to the state to counties that are impacted by the power company – including McCreary. The additional funding will be designated to go toward economic development. To that end a new Industrial Authority was formed to oversee the funding locally.
One of the board’s first acts was to approve the go-ahead seeking a Community Development Block Grant.
In April it was announced a portion of McCreary County would be declared an Opportunity Zone, part of President Donald Trump’s Tax Cuts and Jobs Act of 2017. The designation aims to encourage long-term investments in low-income urban and rural communities. While details on how the branding would work are still pending, local leaders see it as a positive that could have a lasting benefit.
Adding to the benefit was the official announcement of the long-awaited completion of the Highway 92 project. State officials claim the new stretch of highway between McCreary and Whitley counties will be completed by 2020, opening a new corridor to I-75.
Stearns was also the beneficiary of grant announcements to help improve the railway for the Heritage Foundation.
As 2018 ended, McCreary County looks to 2019 with the idea that a brighter new day may be on the horizon…only time will tell.