By Jeremy D. Wells
Carter County Times
The Olive Hill Chamber of Commerce hosted the Democratic and Republican candidates for judge executive at their last regular meeting, with both answering a series of questions submitted by chamber members.
The candidates opened with statements on their background, with Republican Brandon Burton noting his twelve years of experience serving on fiscal court as magistrate for District 5, and Democrat Dustin Howard touting his service on the Grayson Tourism Board, and both noting their experience as small business owners.
“The future of our county is looking bright,” Burton said during his opening statements. “We have a little debt relief, with our jail getting paid off, and our justice center is another.”
He also noted that, over the past twelve years, he has patiently learned “what works and doesn’t work” in county business. Experience he said he was eager to put to use as judge executive.
That included, he noted, his experience with budgeting and funding. While he feels the future is brighter, the county still has to deal with limited funding in the present.
“You have to do your best with what funding you have,” Burton said. He noted, for instance, that the court applied for more than $2 million in flex funding from the state this year.
“We got $153,000,” he said. “Divide that by five, and that’s what each magistrate has to work with in flex funds. So it gets tough. You’ve got to make that dollar last as long as it can.”
Howard, a 2002 graduate of Elliott County High School, told the chamber how he got started in business with his first detail shop at age 17.
“It all kind of started there,” he said, and though he recently sold his bowling alley business in Grayson, he has been purchasing other properties in Grayson.
“We just recently bought two strips on Carol Malone Boulevard that have been vacant twelve to fifteen years,” he said, explaining how they hope to breathe new life into the properties.
“We’ve got four businesses back in those,” he said, and hopes to have the others available soon. “We’ll have two or three more once we’re done.”
“Infrastructure is the thing that we need,” he continued. “I see that every day in my work.”
That infrastructure, he noted, will help draw businesses and businesses can contribute to the tax base, funding much needed improvements within the county.
“We need more Smithfields,” Howard said.
After opening statements, they were given two minutes each to answer the questions as presented by the moderator, chamber president Lisa Messer Conley.
Conley opened the questions with a statement and question about the transparency of fiscal court.
While the meetings are open, the question writer noted, “it seems issues that have been voted on are not always made public knowledge to those that can’t or won’t attend meetings.” The questioner further asked about informing the public of rules and responsibilities of the court.
“How can you better educate the public?” the questioner asked.
Burton said he often wondered why there wasn’t paperwork that needed filed to notify the public of actions and decisions (local governments are required by law to post notice and agendas at least 24 hours in advance of any meeting), but that he encouraged anyone who could to attend meetings and anyone who couldn’t to stop by the judge executives office or to contact their magistrate and ask questions.
“When those things are big issues, we need those people’s (voice) in our ear, so we can make good decisions,” Burton said.
Howard said he thought one of the issues with transparency was that people waited until they were upset before reaching out to their elected officials.
“I think a lot of people wait until there is a problem before they try to figure out what is going on with the problem. I think more people need to be involved with their magistrates, with the judge, with the court, and with what’s going on as a whole.”
“It’s posted a lot of places,” he continued. “I know that because I’m going to the meetings now too.”
But, he said, for a lot of people, “unless you see a problem there’s really no reason to go sit in a fiscal court meeting. Unless there is a real issue, they’re pretty boring. It is what it is.”
“But as far as making people aware of what is going on,” he continued, “it’s open records. Anybody can go get it. Anybody can go look at it. And I encourage to do that. I encourage people to talk to their magistrates. That’s what they are there for.”
The next question was on the county budget.
“How do you plan to improve on budget planning, as it seems there have been shortfalls in previous years, especially when it comes to road repair?”
Howard answered first this time.
“From what I’ve seen on the budget, and I haven’t gone completely through the budget… but it appears to me it’s not being allocated correctly, and that’s almost from top to bottom,” the Democratic candidate said.
But, he admitted, this was not a typical budget year either.
“This year has been a bad year for me to look at it – and I’m not throwing anybody under the bus – but this year has been a bad year because, as you all know, your bills at home have increased.”
That holds true for the county as well, he noted.
“But I think the budgets need to be looked at again, to make sure everyone’s budget is staying where it needs to be at. I don’t think they’ve been updated as time has went on, from the best that I could tell. A lot of them have not been updated and I think that’s something that needs to happen so you do have an actual budget,” Howard said.
County budgets, by law, have to be voted on and approved by the fiscal court and then accepted by the state each year. In addition to this yearly approval, they are often amended throughout the fiscal year to reflect shifting priorities and revenue sources.
Burton, on his turn, noted that the budget was much more nuanced and complex than Howard characterized it.
He said, looking at the budgets from various departments and at the finances available, they were often hoping to have enough simply to cover payroll, and they needed to be flexible to make sure they were meeting all their needs.
“We ran into something just the other day with Jeff’s (Carter County Sheriff Jeff May) department, not being able to pick that insurance up, that hazardous duty insurance. We didn’t have the money and he didn’t either. Because you take wages, things that have changed over the last few years, different costs, and the fuel costs alone have offset that. Look what the sheriff’s department has to spend in fuel – now they’re paying $4 a gallon where they were paying $2 just a year ago… that’s really changed our budget.”
The road department was another place where fuel cost increases had hurt the county recently, he noted.
“Those trucks get five miles to the gallon, paying $5 a gallon for diesel fuel. We run out of money quick and those guys haul gravel all day long. They never stop working. They’re paving.”
For them to stay busy requires flexibility from the court, he explained, in duties and in funding.
“You look at what you have to work with… like I mentioned a while ago with our flex funds. You see those things coming in, and you’re hoping for this big year. You’re hoping for it. Our discretionary funding last year was $150,000. This year, the next year, we didn’t get any. So you really don’t know what to expect sometimes when it comes to county business. You just don’t know what’s going to happen that’s going to take away funding that you thought, ‘Hey, we’re going to be able to do this.’”
But while these other issues with flex and discretionary funding didn’t come through as hoped for, he said, the county had been able to offset some of that with federal funds.
“You look at these ARPA funds we’ve been able to operate with,” he said. “That has been a great asset for us. We’ve been able to offset some things that we owed for, keep the debt off of us… and we’ve tried to utilize that towards our roads and things. Where would we have been without it? I asked Judge Malone, ‘Where would we have been?’ And he had the same answer I’ve got, ‘I have no idea.’ We would be hurting. We would be further in debt. But with those funds we’ve been able to offset and do some good things.”
But, he said, the county can’t count on those funds forever, and the budgets are going to continue to get tighter as the state cuts resources.
“So we’ve got to get down there. We’ve got to get in touch with those people (at the state level). We’ve got to work on extra money. And I promise to do that.”
Both candidates also voiced their support for the libraries, with Howard noting that they were important as “a box to tick” for grant opportunities, if nothing else – though he did say he would consider advocating for the closure of one of the library branches if he determined keeping two locations open wasn’t cost effective.
Because of the city’s unwavering financial support for the library, library director Matt Parsons has promised Olive Hill council that if the library was reduced to a single branch, he would advocate for keeping that branch in Olive Hill.
Both candidates also promised to be “full time” judge executives, and readily available to the public. They also both answered questions about improving the county with comments about improving the roads and infrastructure to make the county more attractive to businesses and new residents.
Independent candidate Duane Suttles was also slated to be on the schedule, but cancelled due to a COVID-19 diagnoses.
The next meeting of the Olive Hill Chamber of Commerce will feature candidates for other county offices, and the October meeting will feature candidates for city offices.
The Carter County Democratic Picnic is your next chance to meet and speak with candidates, this Saturday, August 27, at Noon at the Grayson Lake Campground Shelter House, near the golf course.
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