Photo by Lisa Bicknell
There are eight candidates on the ballot for Estill County Judge-executive. From left, they are: Rhonda Childers, Dwight Richardson, Tom Hart, Gary Powell, Jim Walters, Kevin Williams, Joseph Lambert, and Donnie Watson.
By LISA BICKNELL
CV&T News Editor
Candidates for Estill County Judge-executive were featured in the first of a series of political candidate forums held at the Estill High School Auditorium on Thursday night. This Thursday, March 29th, candidates for sheriff will have the opportunity to share their concerns and vision for Estill County.
About 150 people are estimated to have attended the county judge forum. Each candidate was given an equal amount of time to introduce themselves, then each drew a question which all candidates had opportunity to answer.
The order in which the candidates introduced themselves was also a draw.
Donnie Watson was chosen to introduce himself first. Watson served two non-consecutive terms as Estill County Judge-executive and says he balanced eight budgets.
He spoke of his work history at Trane, from where he retired, his six years with Toler Funeral Home, and his four year bus driving tenure. He said that he retired once, and it wasn’t what he thought it would be, so he went back to work. Watson listed some of the programs started under his watch as county judge, including opening the first animal shelter, starting a recycling program and creating a ten-year host agreement with the landfill.
Watson said he didn’t have to prove he could do the job, because he has already done it.
Joseph Lambert, a write-in candidate, said he was born and raised in Estill County, that he’s lived here for 45 years. “I know these roads and what they were like back in the 70s, the 80s, the 90s and the 2000s.” Lambert said they all need to be fixed, but it will take time. He also wants to support the school system where he went to high school. He said he quit school in 10th grade, because he had to work. If elected, he says, all roads will be done, and paint lines put on them. He also wants to “get the jail opened back up.”
Kevin Williams, who was appointed county judge-executive in January, said that he has always been dedicated to the community. Thursday was his 80th day on the job, which he describes as a rescue mission to save the county. Williams has worked with fire and rescue groups and is a business owner. Of the county judge position, he said, “this is not an eight hour a day job. It’s tough.”
He said he has had to make some cuts, and people have asked him why, saying he was committing “political suicide.” But Williams insists that the county must be run like a business and not a popularity contest.
Jim Walters began his introduction by speaking of friends with whom he graduated in 1963 who had gone on to be successful. Walters himself was the eighth of 11 siblings and the first to graduate high school. His background includes 32 years with Frigidaire, working as a licensed plumber for five years, and working in real estate. Walters said, “We have to have jobs here,” and he said the county needs to market assets that are already here, such as the river. He suggested bringing the matter to the table and talk about dredging the river to open it up. He spoke of the jail, and the need to work toward a part-time solution, but for the long term, he envisions moving it out of the current location to out in the county in an up-to-date complex.
Gary Powell said he has lived here all his life, and that he has started up seven companies in his lifetime. He spoke of his business background, and admitted that he is not a politician but he believes his business background will serve him well. He also told of his work with God’s Outreach in Madison County, and his work to bring that organization to Estill County. He said he will probably be signing a lease over the weekend on a building to house God’s Outreach here. He asked what the county has to offer with tax rates so high, the landfill on one side of the county and the ordinance on the other, a declining population and no jobs.
“We have to implement something,” he said. Powell said he would run as an independent if he could, and said, “I don’t care what your party is.” He said if he is elected, he will run the county as “transparent as can be.”
Thomas Hart said he can’t say that his primary qualification for county judge is that he was born and raised in Estill County, but considering the decline of the population and fortune of Estill Countians, he thinks that it is time for someone with “a broader vision and skill set” to take the lead.
Hart is a retired Air Force Colonel and has worked as a civil engineer, which he says provided him with experience in road building, etc. Hart noted that businesses are closing, the population is aging, children are leaving the county, or driving hours a day to surrounding towns to work.
“It doesn’t have to be that way,” he said. Hart said the county needs to make itself attractive to businesses, and he has experience as a team builder to lead “this journey of economic revitalization.”
Dwight Richardson introduced himself as an employee of the Estill County Water District. He said the hardest part about his job is the public speaking.
“I’m not really a politician,” he said, “but I’m a hard worker, and I’m honest.” He spoke of the need for the vocational school, and said few young people are learning trades such as block laying, framing houses, and construction.
Richardson spoke of the county’s litter problem and said that inmates of the jail should be out cleaning the roadsides, that it is a shame to pay people $15 to $20 dollars an hour to do that job when inmates might prefer to work off their fines. He also said he thinks small business is the county’s best bet, because even small companies such as Carhartt are having trouble keeping employees because of the drug epidemic.
Rhonda Childers said she wants to be the next Estill County Judge-executive because she is tired of business as usual. She said people speak to her of the financial crisis, the addiction crisis, the economy in decline, but “I don’t hear a whole lot of answers.”
However, Childers said she thinks the county is in “a unique position” to overcome its challenges. “It’s a great time to be local…I believe that with all my heart.”
She explained that people want a safe place to raise their kids and send them to school, an affordable home and to be able to go out and eat with their neighbors, etc., things she pointed out are already here.
She also thinks the county is surrounded by potential partners, particularly in the Red River Gorge direction, and the county already has industry in the form of small businesses, tourism, agriculture, and service. “We can grow our county and sustain our citizens.” she said.
The first question drawn asked candidates to list and prioritize issues important to the county.
Donnie Watson spoke of the neeed for a balanced budget, and said, “We need a jail, and we need to work on our drug problem.” He also would make road projects a priority.
Joseph Lambert said that he would talk to Frankfort about an alarm system or metal detector to keep schools safe. He also said he thinks it’s important to “keep our head up,” and to support veterans.
Kevin Williams said the county needs to “get our budget in line,” clean up the county and enforce ordinances pertaining to that, and run the county like a business.
Jim Walters said a balanced budget and finding better resources would be at the top of his list. “How can our revenue be increased?” he asked. He said the county is limited in how it can do that, adding that any change would have to come out of Frankfort.
Gary Powell said the drug problem needs to be addressed by building a drug rehabilitation center to unload the jail and a larger jail to house federal inmates in order to secure federal money. He also said, “We’ve got to get a hold of this landfill” and that there needs to be stricter regulations that need to be enforced.
Tom Hart said that the county’s highest priority needs to be the getting its arms around the budget, practicing fiscal oversight and transparency and working on the illegal drug problem. He said the county could form a task force to work with local law agencies to address the problem.
Dwight Richardson said that getting finances in line, attracting people into the county to take advantage of existing small businesses and getting kids trained for a trade are some of his priorities.
Rhonda Childers also wants to prioritize the budget, and to seek out partnerships that value what the county has to offer. She said she will not rest until the landfill is held responsible for the illegally dumped TENORM.
The second question asked was, “What factors keep jobs out and how can we attract industry?”
Josh Lambert answered first. He said he knows several companies wanting to move back in here but the taxes are too high. He also said, “I don’t buy votes, I don’t give out liquor to get votes…do it the right way or don’t do it at all.”
Kevin Williams said that cleaning up the county and addressing the drug problem will help attract new business. He explained that the rampant drug problem affects the local workforce negatively. He feels there is great opportunity in tourism.
Jim Walters said the trash on roadsides causes people to want to turn around and leave, something he sometimes wants to do himself. He said he’s been asking if a company were to move in here seeking to hire 300 people, could they find the work force to fill that need and most of the time the answer is no.
Gary Powell said that the county has a workforce, but 67 percent of them work outside of the county. To draw industry here, the county needs better roads in and out and “something tax-wise.”
Tom Hart said that cleaning up the county will attract new businesses, that county ordinances and tax structures need to be looked at, and the county needs to aggressively market itself.
Dwight Richardson said small business and tourism should be grown, that inmates should help with the trash problem and students should have opportunity to learn a trade in vocational school.
Rhonda Childers said people speak of the county’s isolation, but what they need to realize is “what we are is a destination.” She said the county is beautiful already, but “we need to clean it up so that people can see it.” She also said the county can’t tax its way out of its financial problems, but must grow its way out.
Donnie Watson said that he doesn’t think the county will get a big factory, and he cited as his reason the difficulty of finding enough employees for it because of the drug problem. “We prepared the way for industry when I was in office… We got the land, Carhartt has built on it, but nothing else has been done since I left office.
The third question said, “We don’t have a new justice center like those in Wolfe, Jackson and Garrard Counties…how would you address the lack of space in the courthouse?”
Kevin Williams said that preserving our present courthouse is the way to go…that judicial centers are nice, but “they are Taj Mahals, funded by the state.” He added that to build one would change the downtown landscape and likely take 15 to 20 buildings out.
Jim Walters said that we keep coming back to the opioid crisis. “I don’t think we are going to legislate
this away.” He also said that he thinks it will require a cultural change of the mind, and the biggest asset [for doing so] is the parents. He also called on local pastors to step up as a community.
Gary Powell said he doesn’t think our county could afford a bigger center. He said it would be nice to have a more efficient system, but he expects that will be years down the road. He also thinks it will takes lots of people working together. Later on, if the county has lots of money, he would like to have one.
Tom Hart said he hadn’t really considered a new justice center, but he thinks it’s something the county could look into.
“How did the other counties find the money?” and “Where are you going to build it?” are questions he raised.
Dwight Richardson said he’s for fixing up the current courthouse if it’s serving the purpose. He wasn’t in favor for the county taking on more debt.
Rhonda Childers said the county should explore options that they already have downtown and there are options not available to us before, with the use of technology. She said she didn’t think it would be a high priority of hers to pursue a center.
Donnie Watson was also in favor of maintaining the current courthouse, and said, “If we solve our drug problem, we won’t need as much space in the courthouse. That’s where all the traffic comes from.”
Josh Lambert also recommended working on the drug problem. He said the county needs to get the DEA working on it. “We need to get our community straightened up.”
4) We live in a region where other communities are facing the same issues. What approach would you take to work with our region to address these issues?
Jim Walters said he would seek community involvement and welcome the input of “every person in this county. I will sit down with anybody that wants to come in my office and office a solution or a solution…. If it’s me, I hope that these gentlemen here will get in there with me…”
Gary Powell said there are a lot of people in the county that have the resources to help the county more than they are. He also said, “I don’t know how I ran the companies that I did…” He thinks it’s because he asked God for wisdom and knowledge.
Tom Hart said that we’ve got a lot of talent, and “don’t have to reinvent the wheel…” He recommended using others’ successful ideas, pulling in business leaders, and getting help that is available from the state. “Put together a strategic plan and make it work,” he said.
Dwight Richardson said he would agree that it is a good idea to reach out to the state. He said he’s worked with the Bluegrass Area Development District quite often, and that they will do anything to try to help the community.
Rhonda Childers said that any strategic plan has to include surrounding counties. She commented that in the past, the county has looked to Madison and Fayette Counties, but she suggested looking at rural counties with rural needs and forming partnerships with them. She also pointed out that Estill County has many of the same attractions that draw people into the Red River Gorge from all over the world.
Donny Watson said when he was county judge, the county had the Estill Development Corporation, and the Estill County Industrial Development Corporation, as well as a solid waste committee.
“I didn’t act entirely on my own,” he said. “We tried to work with people all across the county.”
Josh Lambert said, “We need to work with Lee and Owsley County…everybody that we can. We all need to work together… and quit bickering…”
Kevin Williams said that there are a lot of concerned citizens and action groups that are already looking at the regional concept, which he said is “kind of where it’s at right now.” He also said, “We’ve had big plans all along,” adding that it takes money. Williams is hopeful that after getting the county’s house in order, “we’re going to get there.”
5) Estill County needs better access to Mountain Parkway. How would you go about seeking improvements on Highways 89 and 82 leading to Mountain Parkway?
Gary Powell said that the area needs better access to interstates or the county is not going to get much here. He said that plans are already in the works for cutting across White Oak and Dry Branch, which would shorten the distance to the Mountain Parkway to only three or four miles, although it might be 10 years down the road before the project happens.
Tom Hart said it takes staying on top of it, staying in contact with state senators and representatives to make sure the project gets funded.
Dwight Richardson agreed that Hwy. 89 and 82 need some improvements, because there is a lot of truck traffic every day that is wearing down the roads.
Rhonda Childers also agreed that improved access to Mt. Parkway should be part of a long term or strategic plan, but said, “We need to be the driver of that project.”
Donny Watson said that [White Oak] was one of the proposals he took to Frankfort in Nov. 30, 1984. He also thinks it’s “way down the road.” He commented that there’s already good access to the industrial park from Hwy. 52.
Josh Lambert thinks it would be a nice opportunity to see the road go through, and it would be safer to keep truckers off the roads.
Kevin Williams said he’d met with some representatives in Frankfort, and the Hwy. 89-and 82 intersection at Hudson Mill Rd. is in the six-year plan. He said there is “good things coming,” but it will take staying in touch with Frankfort.
Jim Walters said there’s “a good road going in [Hwy. 52]…and a good road coming out. If you don’t believe me, just go to Walmart with me and watch me campaign.”
6) We are all aware of the TENORM currently stored in our landfill. What regulations would you put in place so that this doesn’t happen in the future?
Tom Hart said that there is an agreed order between the landfill and the Energy and Environment Cabinet to install radiation monitors, which are already in place, and as part of the CAP, policies and procedures are in place already.
Dwight Richardson said he thinks the landfill needs to be closely monitored so that if there is anything illegal brought in, it is caught before it is unloaded. He also thinks a camera system should be set up, and files kept of what is brought in.
Rhonda Childers said that the TENORM issue remains unresolved, and if the landfill gets by with a “slap on the wrist,” she sees “no reason why they would think they should do ever do anything different.” She thinks the solid waste coordinator position and the community host agreement could serve the county well if “we put some teeth into it.”
Donnie Watson said that when he was in office, the landfill was monitored, had cameras, and kept up with the manifests.
Joseph Lambert suggested more recycling to decrease the need for the use of the landfill.
Kevin Williams noted that it may be years before litigation with the landfill can be resolved, and he’s willing to shut down the landfill to keep out the radioactive material if that’s what it takes.
Jim Walters expressed distrust of the landfill liner to last, and said he thinks the county needs to “get the whole thing out of here.” He also posed the question, “Why do we have so much cancer in this community?” and “Why such high insurance?” He said outside organizations should be called on to investigate.
Gary Powell said he has a problem with allowing the landfill to monitor itself. “If you let a thief put your door locks in, he’s going to get in,” Powell said. He thinks the county needs to weigh the cost of monitoring the landfill to see if it is actually worth it to the county, because he thinks the landfill is only worried about making money.
7) What do you think Estill County could do to get the Kentucky River Park project back on track?
Dwight Richardson said that because the park is in a remote area, widening the road was the best thing for it. He suggested asking for volunteers to do some of the work, and he expressed concerns about vandalism if the county invested a lot in the park.
Rhonda Childers said the park is yet another example of a project getting off on the right foot, but then “we falter and don’t utilize to the fullest what we have to offer.” She added that county government must seek and secure the funds that are available, and if the park is promoted and used regularly, it will sustain itself.
Donny Watson said he hadn’t been out there and couldn’t really give an answer about it.
Kevin Williams said he’s been on the phone recently to talk with Congressman Bar and others about grant monies. He said it’s a very beautiful location and is a great opportunity for camping, recreation on the river, as well as soccer and football.
Jim Walters said he had no comment on the park.
Gary Powell said he thinks the park has the potential to generate quite a bit of money, that he thinks camping is huge right now, and that there shouldn’t be a large boat ramp built there, but one just for canoes, etc., so that the park would appeal to campers and trail people. “Wildlife is abundant down there,” he said.
Tom Hart said he was not really familiar with the park, but it sounds like the county got started on the project but didn’t come up with a plan to keep it going. He recommended stepping back to look at the issues such as vandalism and access then forming a plan to move forward.
8) Do you support merging the three local governments of Irvine, Ravenna, and Estill County? Why or why not?
Rhonda Childers said there are pros and cons, but a huge pro is to think in terms of how the county could maximize resources. “Whether we merge or not, our government must work together and remember we are working for the whole.
Donny Watson said he is opposed to merging the local governments.
Josh Lambert said that he thinks the county should stay in the county, and the city should stay in the city, that way they can keep all the paperwork straight and the government straight.
Kevin Williams said it’s been brought up over and over for years, and he thinks it’s something to keep discussing, but he doesn’t see anything happening in that direction for a few more years.
Jim Walters said he is noncommittal on the issue, but if there is some interest in a merger, a study ought to be done to find out the facts.
Gary Powell said right now there is no sense in the county asking Irvine or Ravenna to merge with them, as he asked, “What would we have to offer them?” He did say it could work, and he thinks that sooner or later all three will come together.
Tom Hart said that from a business standpoint you can’t argue with a merger, adding that first the two cities have to come to terms that they can take better care of their citizens if they are merged, and that maybe they can combine with the county later. “It can’t help but be more efficient,” he said.
Dwight Richardson said he doesn’t think right now is the time, and he doesn’t think that what the city’s got to offer would help him, or what the county has to offer would help them at this point, but he expects it will happen on down the road.