INSTITUTE FOR RURAL JOURNALISM & COMMUNITY ISSUES
These stories appeared in the Casey County News, which has no Web site, on March 9, 2005.
Tempers flare as battle continues for tobacco funds
By Donna Carman, Editor
The gloves came off at the Casey County Agriculture Development Council meeting Wednesday night as accusations of mismanagement and personal attacks flowed freely.
And it's not the first time.
This time, chairman Marion Murphy called in John Gossage, president of the Casey County Cattlemen's Association, to answer questions pertaining to the awarding of cost share funds administered by the association. Murphy believes there are instances where funds are either being unfairly awarded, or contracts are not being honored.
The Cattlemen's Association is the administrator of three of the five programs available to Casey County farmers -- genetics, cattle handling facilities, and diversification. The Casey County Conservation District administers a forages program, while the Central Kentucky Meat Goat Association handles funding for goats.
Funding for these programs comes from House Bill 611, which was established in 2000 with money from the Phase I Tobacco Settlement. Eight-member agriculture development councils were created also to establish programs to help farmers diversify away from tobacco in creating ways to make up the lost income.
Murphy specifically asked Gossage if a committee within the Cattlemen’s Association evaluates the applications submitted by farmers. Gossage replied that only one individual does that as James Young was appointed by the association to handle the programs.
Gossage said farmers sign up on a list at the Casey County Extension Office for the cattle programs that are awarded on a first-come, first-serve basis.
“Is anyone other than Mr. Young included in distributing the money?” Murphy asked.
“No,” Gossage replied.
Murphy also asked Gossage’s opinion on the Cattlemen’s Association recovering cost-share funds from contracts that were not fulfilled, such as in the case of death, divorce, or bankruptcy.
“If you die, the bank is going to be looking at your estate for money,” Murphy said. “This is a business. I personally believe we should operate as if we were a bank and handle everything above board as the contract states.”
Local veterinarian, Dr. Don Wilkey, disagreed with Murphy, stating that the cost share monies are not loans, but grants.
“But the rules say if (a farmer) doesn’t complete the contract, someone will come looking for the money back,” Murphy said.
Young said he had sought guidance on the matter from Keith Rogers, executive director of the Governor’s Office of Agriculture Policy, who, in turn, had requested an opinion from the agency’s counsel, Catherine Ball. Young said, based on her written response, that he would not be taking any action in attempting to collect from the estates of deceased participants.
“The death of a farmer is an excusable reason to release him from the contract,” Young said. “I have no intention to try to collect money back unless there is evidence of wrongdoing, and then I would turn it over to the police.”
Murphy has questioned the distribution of funds, saying there are instances where certain people have received money in multiple programs while others who are waiting for funding have received none.
Murphy said he is not a “popular person” with Young, and pointed out that Young has attacked him on more than one occasion in print.
“Are you aware that money has been awarded to people who don’t even own cattle?” Murphy asked Gossage.
Both Gossage and Young said no, and Young asked Murphy to supply him with a written list of names.
Murphy also questioned whether everyone who has received money has had the required training. He said there were 59 instances of people who had received more than $3,000 who had not met the requirements, which Young denied.
Murphy then said there were instances of people receiving money who did not have a required farm number. Young also denied that allegation.
“I’ve found 11 instances,” Murphy responded.
Cheston Wilson, who is also on the ag development council, pointed out that farmers can also apply for funds using the number of a farm they lease.
Murphy said he believes a lot of mismanagement has been going on.
“There are flagrant violations of many, many rules of this game, and I’m not sure the Cattlemen’s Association knows this is going on,” he said. “There is mismanagement on Mr. Young’s part with this money.”
Young asked Murphy to make a list of those violations, “sign it, and put it in writing.” He also pointed out that the books he keeps have been audited, and there were no discrepancies.
Murphy said he did not doubt that Young’s books balanced, “but I’d like to see if people have actually complied (with their contracts).”
As the allegations and denials continued to fly, Wilson called a halt.
“Things are getting too personal and you should quit attacking each other,” he said. “When we enter these doors, we’re supposed to be trying to do the best we can to help the farmers we represent.”
Not enough to go around
Betty Lou Weddle, who is also on the council, said she would like to see a program that would help all farmers, not just a few. Wilson said that while that is a good idea, the council cannot make farmers take advantage of programs.
“If we put a $100 bill at the courthouse for every person who has a tobacco base, there would be people who wouldn’t come down here to get it,” he said.
Wilkey said the biggest problem is there is not enough money to go around for what everyone wants to do.
Steve Heightchew, Casey’s Extension Agent for Agriculture, who advises the council, pointed out the program is in its fourth year and is scheduled to continue for 21 more years. He said there is a calculated figure on how much money counties receive each year, but it will go down.
Murphy said that’s why it is important to serve as many people as possible.
“We need to clean up our act,” he said.
Murphy presented a list of 14 points that he said he would like to see the ag council consider. The list was also presented at a Jan. 26 meeting, but no action was taken. Murphy said there were three in particular that he would like to address:
- No money should be awarded to any applicant that has received money under any program until all applicants have been served.
- Some mechanism should be in place to recover monies that have been misused.
- A completed application should be on file for all persons on waiting lists.
Murphy said the idea behind the first request was to keep the same people from taking advantage of all programs until everyone had a turn. However, Wilson said that would defeat the purpose.
“These programs work together for one common good and they all go together,” he said.
On the second request, Heightchew pointed out that it was the state’s decision, not the council’s, to determine if a contract had been fulfilled.
“If you know of an instance where the law has been broken, you need to let Mr. Young know so he can check it,” he said.
As for the request on the applications, Murphy said the state was “astounded” that there were no applications on file. However, Young said the list of names on the waiting list were the applications.
“What's wrong with the way it is?” Young questioned.
“Because it puts one man totally in control of the money,” Murphy replied.
After much discussion on each item, the council voted to adhere to their current system.
“We cannot change the rules on any programs that are going on,” Heightchew said.
Weddle said she still believes that the program is not helping the people it was intended to -- the tobacco farmers.
“How can we help the tobacco farmer when people are getting money who’ve not grown a stalk of tobacco?” she said.
By Donna Carman, Editor
The Casey County Agriculture Development Council will have to return some of its money to the state -- but the county will get it back.
Pat Williams, who handles the forages program administered by the Casey County Conservation District, told the council on Wednesday night that the program did not award about $50,000 by its Sept. 30, 2004 deadline. He pointed out the wet weather last year factored into the money not being awarded on a timely basis.
Steve Heightchew, County Extension Agent for Agriculture, said the county has one year to use the funds it receives for each program. If not used, the money must be returned. However, the county can reapply, he said.
“I’d love to see (the council) set a high priority and get your signatures and send (the money) back to Maggie May tomorrow,” Williams said, referring to a person who works in the Governor’s Office of Agriculture Policy.
The council agreed to return the $45,224.90 not used and then reapply for it.
In another matter, the council elected Greg Goode to serve as vice chairman, even though he is already the council’s secretary. Goode, who was not present at Wednesday’s meeting, will chair meetings in the absence of Chairman Marion Murphy.
The council also voted on motions pertaining to the application for, and distribution of, funds pertaining to the tobacco cost share settlement funds. (See related story.)
The council also agreed not to seek the reimbursement of funds that were distributed to farmers who died before they could fulfill the terms of their contracts.
The Casey County News is planning an upcoming series regarding the agriculture development council and cost share programs.
Editor Donna Carman can be reached at 787-7171, or by e-mail at firstname.lastname@example.org.
Rural Journalism & Community Issues
Phone: (859) 257-3744, Fax: (859) 323-9879
Al Cross, Institute director , email@example.com