After talking to a sixth-grader who inspired him to think about “education as an investment,” West Virginia Gov. Jim Justice supported a five percent pay raise for teachers whose strike shut down schools in West Virginia for four days.
Now if only a sixth-grader from Knott County could bump into the billionaire coal operator/resort owner and urge him to make good on the more than $1 million in delinquent taxes that one of Justice’s coal companies owes the struggling Eastern Kentucky school district.
Altogether, Kentucky Fuel Corp., now under the control of Justice’s children, owes Knott County $1.92 million in delinquent property taxes.
Coal companies connected to Justice owe $2.9 million in delinquent property taxes in Kentucky, the Herald-Leader reported this week, including $570,000 in Floyd County, $250,891 in Pike, $85,372 in Harlan and $54,842 in Magoffin, according to local records.
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Knott County’s schools operated on about $30 million a year before plunging property tax assessments on coal reserves cost the district about $1 million a year. The district tightened its belt but still projects a $100,000 shortfall for the next school year. Kentucky’s legislature is in the process of creating an emergency loan fund for Knott and other school districts whose finances are on the brink of collapse.
By paying what’s owed, Justice’s company could make a huge difference to the kids of Knott County. Instead, the county has had to seek court orders to enforce payment plans. As assistant county attorney Randy G. Slone told the Herald-Leader, “The problem is intentionally not paying.” Justice companies have sent bad checks to some local governments.
Justice, who is notorious in coal country for not paying suppliers, makes a poor role model for youngsters with his deadbeat ways, but also conveys a powerful lesson in history: The coal industry exported wealth out of the mountains, while controlling local politicians, and investing as little in the region as it could get by with. Now as demand for Appalachian coal dries up, not much of an economy or tax base is left.
Justice’s companies should pay their taxes. But even if they do, the coal industry will be in arrears to Eastern Kentucky forever.