State

Business manager of Kentucky’s ‘worst water district’ retires amid financial crisis

Martin County Water District Business Manager Joe Hammond retired Tuesday as the troubled district faces financial problems.
Martin County Water District Business Manager Joe Hammond retired Tuesday as the troubled district faces financial problems. Herald-Leader file photo

The business manager of Kentucky’s “worst water district” abruptly retired Tuesday, less than a month after officials warned the district would likely collapse within 60 to 90 days if regulators don’t approve a massive rate increase.

Martin County Water District Board Chairman John Horn announced the retirement of Joe Hammond Tuesday morning during a water board meeting, but the impact and details of Hammond’s retirement remain unclear.

The board did not accept questions from a reporter for the local newspaper or water customers at the meeting, and the Herald-Leader was unable to reach Hammond.

“Things are just in such flux right now it’s hard to say what his retirement would mean,” said Mary Cromer, an attorney with the Appalachian Citizens’ Law Center who represents an advocacy group called Martin County Concerned Citizens.

Martin County resident David McCoy said Hammond lied to the public numerous times as the water district’s business manager, but that problems with the water district and the county as a whole will persist despite Hammond’s retirement.

“He’s been caught lying so many times,” McCoy said. “The swamp’s got to be drained completely. They need people who are actually going to do the right thing.”

The water district has made national headlines recently for failing to provide its 3,500 customers with reliable access to clean drinking water.

Thousands in Martin County went without running water for days — some people for weeks — in January when an intake pump and service pipes froze during frigid weather.

Customers complain that even when they have water, it is not fit to drink.

On a Facebook group called Martin County Water Warriors, residents regularly post pictures of brown and milk-colored water, and claim it causes rashes and sometimes other, more serious health problems, such as cancer.

The Martin County Water District has refuted these claims, saying its water is safe to drink.

Horn said Tuesday that the board will “begin talking about naming an interim general manager.”

“We’ve had some discussion about that,” he said at the meeting.

The board then passed a motion “to name, or to at least approach, an interim with that job title.”

“I’m happy because with (Hammond) in there we’re not going to get anywhere,” said BarbiAnn Maynard, a Martin County resident who is a member of Martin County Water Warriors. “It’s about time we get some new blood in there.”

In hopes of righting the district’s finances, the district made a bid last month for an emergency rate increase that would raise rates by half.

The move prompted criticism from customers who do not trust the district to spend the money responsibly.

The state Public Service Commission, the agency that regulates most utilities, held a hearing Jan. 26 to discuss the bid, during which PSC chairman Michael Schmitt declared Martin County Water District “by far the worst water district, in my opinion, in the state of Kentucky.”

Schmitt criticized the district for failing to collect about $650,000 in overdue bills, and blamed past management for leading the district into its current financial crisis.

The district has for years lost more than half of the water it treats through leaky pipes and tanks. In 2016, the water-loss rate reached 64 percent.

During the state hearing in January, Horn said the district would likely collapse within 60 to 90 days if it did not receive the rate increase.

“Things are crazy around here,” McCoy said. “This county has a lot more to offer than what it’s giving the people.”

Will Wright is a corps member with Report for America, an initiative of The GroundTruth Project. Reach him at 859-270-9760, @​HLWright

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