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A storied Kentucky town ‘dissolves’, others may follow

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Katie Myers | Ohio Valley ReSource
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Denise Bates and her grandson, John Fletcher

The mayor of Blackey stepped down years ago. The city council dwindled down to nothing. No one stepped up to replace them.

Though the former coal camp town still has an active community, politically, it was defunct. No one had been running the town for years. With no one to oversee the dispensation of municipal road funds and coal severance, the city’s services fell into disrepair.

Myrtle Miller, for instance, is the former town secretary. On a warm afternoon in June, she tended her roses in front of her house as a cat twined around her legs. Taking a moments’ break from yard work, she recalled her long-ago resignation from her role due to frustration with the now-inoperable water plant. Over time, she’s seen Blackey’s financial problems compound. She’s tired of dealing with the roads in the wintertime. With no one to govern, they ice over and crack and no one fixes them. “We need something done here,” Miller said.

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Katie Myers | Ohio Valley ReSource
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Myrtle Miller was town secretary of Blackey.

J.D. Chaney, CEO of the Kentucky League of Cities (KLC), said the problem came to a head when federal COVID relief funding came to the state. Most cities jumped at the money. But some places, like Blackey, couldn’t.

“We started getting a lot of nonresponses on that,” Chaney said. “We said, wait a minute… how many of these cities aren’t going to take free money?”

In November 2021, Letcher County agreed to serve as caretaker for about $150,000 in Blackey’s city accounts. Democratic State Rep. Angie Hatton of Whitesburg, who represents the region, served as legal counsel for the process.

“We started looking into whether the city of Blackey wouldn’t be able to take advantage of any of those loans. And as it turned out, they couldn’t, because no city audits had been done for all these years since about 2009,” said Hatton.

Dwindling tax bases, aging populations and loss of industry have impacted many small towns across Kentucky. In March, the Kentucky Legislature passed a bill streamlining a solution for the town of Blackey and hundreds of other cities like it.

To save the town, Blackey would have to voluntarily dissolve.

In the Letcher County courthouse in the last week of June, in the span of five minutes, the fiscal court passed a motion to dissolve the city of Blackey. With the sound of a gavel, Blackey disincorporated, its finances absorbed Letcher county’s government.

Sitting outside the courtroom afterwards, Hatton said that she’s concerned about a lot of formerly coal-producing towns in the area she represents. She’s working hard to advocate for economic diversification to bring some vitality and jobs to Letcher County, so her constituents can stay in the communities they love.

“The ones of us who are left are, you know, the ones who are determined to save it,” Hatton said. “And just not let this place we live dry up and blow away.”

Dissolving A Town to Save It

Blackey is, at first glance, a fairly typical eastern Kentucky former coal camp town. It is home to around 100 people, and even in its days as a coal camp community, never numbered more than 600.

Every year, the population drops off by one or two. The median age is around 55, compared to around 38 nationally. The town’s average income has declined to less than $23,000.

Even so, Blackey always seemed to speak to the world in a way many other towns never did. The small mountain town appears from time to time in film, song, and literature, scattered through recent history — as the filming location of the Loretta Lynn biopic Coal Miners’ Daughter, for instance. Some residents say their time as an extra in the film was one of the most exciting moments of their lives.

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Kate Smith Lardner
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An old Carbon Glow coal tipple near Blackey, date unknown.

The old CB Caudill General Store spent decades as a famed gathering place for politicians, journalists, and activists, including famed oral historian Studs Terkel. Former Kentucky Poet Laureate Gurney Norman has often come through Blackey to for poetry readings. And there’s even a little song by Dolly Parton that bears the town’s name. In the song, a young woman leaves Blackey for a marriage to a rich man, only to yearn for it for the rest of her life.

But as coal cooled down, so did Blackey. It was a slow and precipitous decline. Coal severance tax, once a major funding source for eastern Kentucky municipalities, dwindled and declined steeply after 2012. The city had already been disincorporated once, and was re-incorporated in the 1990s thanks to a few dedicated community activists.

In a second-floor apartment above a shuttered health clinic in Blackey, Kentucky, retired schoolteacher Denise Bates sat on her porch in the sunshine. From there, Bates can see where things are, but she can also see where they aren’t. The school is gone, the post office is gone, the general store, the IGA grocery, the ice cream shop and the passenger train that once connected Blackey to the rest of the world. But she can still see the old water plant rusting quietly in a patch of weeds.

“We had a lot of fun in Blackey,” said Bates, who’s been in and out of Blackey all her life. But now, like many Blackey residents, she’s concerned about the town’s future.

Her grandson, seven-year-old John Fletcher, poked his head out of the screen door. “I don’t want it to not be a place anymore,” said John. His four-year-old sister Ivy looked out from behind him.

“It’s still gonna be a place,” said Bates. She shook her head. “I don’t know who told him that.”

Chaney, with the Kentucky League of Cities, said he’s familiar with the financial problems that plague rural small towns and prevent citizens from receiving the benefits of their tax dollars. To Chaney, a city’s relationship with its people is a sacred social contract.

“I just keep emphasizing that’s what the essence of cities are,” Chaney said. “And that they exist to provide services and programs designed to enhance the quality of life.”

Municipal dissolution is a technical process referring to the official termination of a city as a political, self-governing entity. When a town dissolves, the county around it absorbs the town’s finances.

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Katie Myers | Ohio Valley ReSource
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Blackey’s now-defunct water plant.

Thirty-eight states currently allow towns to disincorporate. It’s a severe action, though more common than is often thought, according to a report by Dr. Michelle Wilde Anderson, a professor at Stanford Law School. In her research, Anderson notes the twentieth century saw the creation of thousands of cities, and many, like Blackey, were built around industry and population growth patterns that have since shifted. Cities and towns go the path of dissolution because s revenues simply aren’t keeping up with community needs, like this West Virginia town that couldn’t afford to repair its water system.

Chaney, who’s from Harlan County, recalled a dissolution a few years ago in the town of Wallins. Wallins disincorporated in 2016, but the process was arduous, despite widespread agreement the move was necessary. A citizen had to individually petition the county to dissolve the city, a process that’s personally risky, complex and costly for members of a cash-poor rural community.

According to the Kentucky Herald-Leader, the new dissolution process initiates if cities fail to respond to a simple questionnaire from the Department for Local Government..

The process is easier than it used to be in Kentucky. During this year’s legislative session, Chaney advocated for Senate Bill 106, which streamlined city dissolution by requiring an administrative process for it. Under this law, the Department of Local Government can begin dissolving a city if it fails to complete annual documentation. The process remains voluntary, and requires participation and consent from local governments.

The bill passed in March. Chaney said dissolution now is an option for eight to 12 financially struggling cities across the state of Kentucky.

This number includes nearby Vicco in Perry County, despite a recent surge in national attention due to a charismatic, openly gay mayor who made national headlines.

Letcher County held two public meetings in Blackey prior to the dissolution process, to see if the community would support a mayoral appointment by Gov. Andy Beshear. This move did not receive enough support from Blackey residents to move forward.

Though most services in Blackey, such as water, have been taken over by the county in years past, this change will allow the county to fix former city roads. Taxpayer money from Blackey will be usable, though not held specifically within Blackey. According to the Mountain Eagle, the court will hold money from Blackey’s accounts in a separate account earmarked for the area.

For Letcher County’s part, this dissolution may impact county budgets, increase revenue needs and therefore burden on county staff. It will also bring new properties and people under county jurisdiction, and expand the reach of county law enforcement and fire services.

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Kate Smith Lardner
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A baptism in Blackey, many decades ago.

Life Goes On in Blackey

For a town that doesn’t exist on paper, Blackey remains a pretty lively place. The people are out and about on this sunny Monday afternoon. From Denise Bates’ porch on high she can see it all. Cars rumble across the old iron bridge that crosses the creek between town and the highway. The sun shines bright on the town park.

In the pretty public library building, the county library board holds its quarterly meeting as patrons browse the internet. Samantha Niece, the library assistant, checks out books for patrons. Librarians gab over a shared cigarette in the alley.

Inside, Howard Stanfield, who attended high school in Blackey over 60 years ago, mused on the town’s history. He remembered booms and busts; the last boom was in the 1980s and 90s, when Blackey reincorporated after a period of disincorporation. Maybe it’s just another cycle, he said. Maybe not.

Meanwhile, Samantha Niece, in the library, is raising her kids here. She said she’s hopeful for the future.

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Katie Myers | Ohio Valley ReSource
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Samantha Niece works at the Blackey public library

“It’s been really good for my children,” Niece said. “My son, he’s 16, he cuts grass for, you know, elderly people in our holler. They bake cookies and send them home with him. Everybody looks out for everyone else.”

Maybe no one wants to be the mayor, but people around Blackey are still plenty involved in their community. Blackey isn’t some dead town, stuck in a black and white photograph deep in an archive, said Bates. A dedicated group of citizens, known as the Blackey Improvement Committee, help keep the doors open at the local community center.

After recent years’ sharp drop in coal severance tax funding, the community center was on the brink of closing its doors. As Bates recalled, the community threw together a last-ditch effort to save it. A group of neighbors wrote a play about the town’s history and performed it right there in the center, using ticket sales to help keep the building open. They packed the house. The community center still stands.

The Blackey Improvement Committee keeps up a busy yearly schedule of fundraisers and dinners for the center, and plans Blackey Days, an annual festival of music, cakewalks, dancing, and family reunions.

Though some in Blackey said they’ve heard neighbors and friends express ire at the dissolution process, those who were willing to speak about it felt no matter its legal standing, Blackey would continue on.

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Kate Smith Lardner
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Despite economic troubles, Blackey still hosts the highly successful Blackey Days festival every year.

It’s still Blackey,” said Mary Gail Adams, a member of the Blackey Improvement Committee.

Miller, the former town secretary, standing by her roses, felt the same. “I can’t see where it’s gonna hurt one way or the other,” she said. “To be truthful with you.”

As Bates put away her phone, her grandkids, briefly shut in the house, stormed back out the door. Ivy leaned over the balcony, squinting at the sky.

“Look at that cloud!”

“Is that only a Blackey cloud?” asked Bates, as seven-year-old Fletcher climbed onto her lap.

“Yeah!”

“They think this is the best place on earth,” said Bates, smiling.