When SunChemical’s Performance Pigment plant in Wurtland suddenly closed last month, the entire community knew the economic impact would extend beyond just the elimination of 30 good-paying industrial jobs. But few imagined at the time that the plant’s demise would lead to the eliminiation of the Wurtland police department.
Effective at 4 p.m. Friday, Wurtland elected officials laid off Police Chief Phillip Piercy, the small town’s lone police officer and police chief for the past 19 years. The Wurtland City Commission has since taken action to permanently dissolve the police department.
For the time being, the nearby Raceland Police Department will be handling Wurtland’s law enforcement calls. Wurtland Commissioner Jackie Ball said Raceland will respond first, then Worthington and Greenup, if needed, she said. The Kentucky State Police and Greenup County Sheriff’s Depatment also have the jurisdiction to handle police calls in Wurtland if the need arises.
Even though he was a one-man police department, Piercy took his job seriously and actively patrolled the streets and investigated crimes in the small town. He was no Barney Fife. He was a trained law enforcement officer who served the small community well.
So why lay him off? Well, the pigment plant’s sewage treatment accounted for about 96 percent of the revenue for the city of Wurtland. Talk about being overly dependent on one source of revenue. The sewage treatment plant was built specifically to meet the pigment plant’s needs, and the closing of the plant not only immediatly caused the small town to lose more than 90 percent of its revenue, but it also caused the city of Greenup to have some second thoughts about having the Wurtland plant treat its sewage.
However, Greenup officials have wisely decided to go ahead with the line connecting the city to Wurtland’s sewage treatment plant. The initial line connecting Greenup and Wurtland will be paid for using $1.87 million in Kentucky Infrastructure Authority funds secured years ago for the project.
Long before the closing of the pigment plant, Wurtland, Greenup and Greenup County agreed to establish the Greenup Joint Sewer Agency, as well as the Greenup Wastewater District. That’s a critical step in expanding sewers throughgout the area, which encourages economic development along U.S. 23 and the Ohio River in Greenup County. The closing of the pigment plant simply means Wurtland needs more than ever to expand its sewage treatment to Greenup and beyond.
Wurtland officials, Mayor Donna Hayes said, had no choice but to lay off Piercy. His salary and benefits were the most expensive at more than $70,000 a year.
“We have been looking at the budget ever since PCI went out,” said Hayes. She said the Wurtland Board of Commissioners have been under tremendous stress since the announcement on Feb. 5. They have been working non-stop, she said, “to do what is right by everyone.”
The elimination of a one-person police department may not seem like much, but residents of the small cities in Greenup County have made it clear in the past that they do not want to share police, fire and other services. In fact, when the cities of Raceland and Worthington began exploring having their police services handled by neighboring Flatwoods more than a decade ago, residents of both cities were so angered by that possibility that both mayors lost their re-election bids. That ended any discussion of merging services by city leaders.
Can the dissolution of the Wurtland police department revive those talks? Don’t count on it. Even though one larger police department for the small towns may be less expensive and more effective, people want their own police department. Piercy was only one person who could not be on the job 24/7, but he was the only law enforcement officer assigned to Wurtland and no other conmunity. Officers from other communities can certainly provide basic police services but they won’t know Wurtland like Piercy does, and there is value in having a police officer as a neighbor.
Nevertheless, one can’t blame Wurtland officials for abolishing the police force. When major spending cuts are absolutely essential, the easiest place to start is with eliminating the biggest expense.