CLINTWOOD — While concerned about process and precedent, Dickenson County supervisors Monday were most worried about providing assistance to county miners who have been hurt by the bankruptcy and tactics of the Blackjewel coal company.
Mid meeting, Ervinton District Supervisor David Yates phoned the Workforce Investment Board and WIB’s Aleta Spicer briefed supervisors on what is happening elsewhere and how that giving is being navigated.
The board made no formal gift but appeared ready to as soon as members have more information.
Willis District Supervisor Jason Compton raised the question of assistance, estimating as many as two dozen Dickenson County coal miners could be affected.
Spicer would confirm those numbers.
“I don’t want us to do nothing if we can do something,” Compton said.
County Attorney Stephen Mullins said he was taken aback when he first heard about giving by Buchanan County supervisors. “I don’t think you can pay private citizens just because they were laid off,” Mullins advised the board, adding that they could be opening Pandora’s Box.
The board pondered what precedent it would be setting, noting, among other things, the needs of those in Dickenson County hit by the layoffs at the Sykes call center in Vansant.
But Compton insisted that what happened to the Blackjewel employees was no traditional layoff but included a take-back of their money and denying access to their retirement accounts.
Spicer explained by phone that Buchanan County had routed its money through People Inc., a non-profit active in Dickenson County and throughout the region. Other giving had come through private foundations.
When you start issuing public money to private individuals, you have to start detailed tracking for accountability for both the public body and the employees, County Administrator David Moore advised. “I think there’ll be a lot of eyes on this,” he said, with questions certain to arise by others in difficult financial situations.
“There’s no end to it,” Moore said.
All agreed there were more questions to ask before the board acted. Mullins said he would get information from Buchanan County.
Some Dickenson County miners may already be on the help list in other counties, such as Wise County, where at least some of the people worked, Spicer told them as she recounted efforts in place through a donation from the Gilliam Foundation.
The board asked that she check about who is covered and get back to them. Members also discussed others to whom they might turn for financial assistance.
In Buchanan County, supervisors drew from accounts set up for spending by each board member, for a total of $70,000. Those kind of accounts for Dickenson County supervisors aren’t that high, Moore and members noted.
The Thompson Foundation, created by the former owners of Jewel Smokeless, also gave $110,000 for distribution in Buchanan County and another $100,000 for Tazewell County. The board noted that the foundation’s giving always has been restricted to the two counties where Jewel Smokeless had operated. Tazewell supervisors kicked in $25,000 and also made contributions to that county’s food bank.
Russell County supervisors did not give, Spicer said, although First Bank and Trust donated $1,000 and issued a challenge to others to contribute.
Wise County supervisors didn't given either, Spicer said, but the Gilliam Foundation had contributed $250,000 for distribution in Wise and Lee counties. Asked to request funding for Dickenson County miners, Spicer said she would after determining whether they would already be covered because they worked in those counties.
Sandlick District Supervisor Ron Peters acknowledged that giving to this small group was “precarious ground to be trespassing on" but also expressed support, noting, “this is the industry that is our backbone.”