To understand why it's so hard for Eastern Kentucky to pull itself out of poverty, consider Morgan County.
After a devastating tornado in 2012, the top elected official turned the disaster into a windfall for a prominent family to whom he had long been connected and whose members had contributed to his campaign.
As Herald-Leader reporter John Cheves detailed Sunday, then-Judge-Executive Tim Conley entered into a no-bid contract to pay $1.65 million for property assessed at $315,000 to serve as a government headquarters until county offices could be rebuilt.
The no-bid contract without so much as an appraisal was allowed because of the state of emergency.
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It would have been cheaper to enter into a short-term lease or bring in additional portable offices.
But overpaying for the property was easily rationalized by the expectation that the federal government, specifically the Federal Emergency Management Agency, would pick up the tab. And it's well known that the government in Washington is a bottomless well of magically replenishing money.
FEMA or the county's insurers also were expected to pay unreasonably high prices for equipment leased to respond to the emergency — a faulty assumption that has led Emergency Disaster Services, a company owned by former Democratic Party chairman Jerry Lundergan, to sue Morgan County for $1 million in unpaid bills.
FEMA paid out millions in Morgan County, including $7 million for new county offices.
But the agency did not pick up the $1.65 million tab for temporary offices.
The county recently consolidated its tornado-related debt into a $5 million bond and is facing a $600,000 budget shortfall next year. So, in a county where 29 percent of the people live in poverty, new elected officials probably will have to slash services or raise taxes.
We're not calling for penny-pinching when people are suffering after a disaster. Decisions must be made quickly. The tornado, which killed six people and left West Liberty in ruins, was the worst thing ever to hit Morgan County. Sadly, the deals disrespecting taxpayers victimized residents again.
The $1.65 million property, formerly owned by Rifle Coal, now houses the county's water district staff and road crew. It's possible the property was under-assessed for tax purposes but highly unlikely it was worth more than five times the assessed value.
The state monitors the accuracy of county property valuations. And an assessment that grossly inaccurate would raise questions of its own about the local government's integrity.
Conley, the former judge executive, is serving a seven-year sentence in federal prison for soliciting kickbacks on county bridge-construction contracts. He ran for re-election while under indictment and, thankfully, was defeated.
What larger lessons can we draw from this sad tale?
For one, it's not just the region's poor and disabled who think of the federal government as a piggybank (all the while denouncing big government's intrusion into their lives and businesses).
Also, the kinds of decisions and deals reported by Cheves will sabotage efforts to strengthen the region's economy. Until ethical leaders, who would not use a disaster to gouge their constituents, run for and are elected to public office, the mountains cannot prosper.