By Chris Harris
93rd District State Representative
As a proud and concerned Pike Countian, I’m happy and relieved to see our public utility, Mountain Water District, has finally turned the page on a dark, disgraceful and deceitful chapter of its existence. After lawsuits to gain access to public financial records, embarrassing audits that uncovered no-bid contracts, misuse of coal severance funds and one financial crisis after another, this week the Mountain Water Board of Directors successfully and seamlessly transitioned away from private operation by Utility Management Group. While we the public may not notice any drastic changes in the short term, I’m confident that the years ahead will bring stronger financials, more water and wastewater extensions, a more stable rate structure, a better work environment for its employees and improved customer service for all of us living out in the County. Mountain Water will now be free to get back to putting people over profits, and will hopefully learn from mistakes of the past.
This transition didn’t happen easily or overnight and those who stood up and finally said bravely “enough is enough” deserve a huge thanks and our deepest appreciation for returning Mountain Water to the people of Pike County. Board Chairman, Mike Blackburn, and Board Members Johnny Tackett, Eddie Hurley, Ancie Casey and Kelsey Friend went about the process of considering the operational decisions facing the District with focus, in-depth research, professional advice and evaluation and thoughtful deliberation. The process they used to decide how the District should operate was inspired and guided by the Kentucky Public Service Commission and resulted in a unanimous decision to take back operations from a private, for-profit, business, Utility Management Group.
Pike County Judge-Executive Bill Deskins deserves a tremendous amount of thanks as well for his unwavering commitment to nominating competent, qualified board members who would not only be willing to perform an objective evaluation of the District, but also be strong enough to make changes if they were warranted. Judge Deskins has served Pike County honorably in many capacities throughout his life and I’m proud of the stand he has taken, and commitment he has made, to cleaning up the mess at Mountain Water District. His actions, supported by the members of the Pike County Fiscal Court, have laid the groundwork for success and put our public utility on the right path.
While we are thankful and hopeful today, our county officials must remain vigilant in the future to make certain that all operations and records of Mountain Water District remain open to the public and available for inspection by any member of the public who wishes to view them. Pike County’s open records lawsuit against Utility Management Group is still ongoing and was recently appealed to the Kentucky Supreme Court after the Court of Appeals ruled in Pike County’s favor directing the financial records be turned over to the County. The Supreme Court will soon determine if the public is entitled to see where millions of dollars were spent when Utility Management Group first took over operations at Mountain Water District.
Regardless of the outcome of the case we should carefully consider the battle we continue to fight for these records before contracting the operations of a public utility out to a private company. To quote Court of Appeals Judges Kramer and Maze the recent Kentucky Court of Appeals Concurring Opinion rendered in the case,
“The people of Pike County, and their representatives, were entitled
under the Open Records Act to seek answers regarding the conduct of UMG and its expenditure of public funds. That these answers might contain “the most dreaded … of knowledge” concerning UMG or others is of no consequence. On the contrary, it is all the more reason they must be given.”