Carroll Smith used his tenure as county judge-executive to demonstrate that he could strengthen the economy of his county, yet balance job growth with the need to respect the environment.
In coal-producing Letcher County, where Carroll served as the highest-ranking administrative official, there was little history of balancing environment and jobs. Increasingly, coal mining created fewer jobs and more environmental damage. Even though Letcher County has a population of only 25,000 and the median household income of its citizens is half the national average, Carroll did not let the small size and meager economic growth get in the way of good ideas during his twelve years in office.
When the U.S. Congress refused to increase the minimum wage, Carroll tried in 1999 to persuade the Letcher Fiscal Court to pass an ordinance requiring it. The Fiscal Court refused, but living wages became an election issue the following year and the new fiscal court passed the ordinance, increasing the minimum wage in Letcher County to $7.50 per hour.
Job insecurity had a destabilizing effect on county employees, so Carroll implemented a merit system. Carroll declined to hire state road contractors but instead kept road repair funds close to home by hiring county road workers to do the job.
Letcher County’s public infrastructure languished in the late 1960s and early 1970s as dwindling coal employment emptied the county of half its citizens. But Carroll continued to push through ways to provide modern public services. He and other leaders stopped raw sewage from being dumped into streams in coal camp communities. These communities were never serviced by city sewage, and the houses were too close together to install septic fields. By working with non-profit organizations, volunteers and local utility boards, Carroll helped promote demonstration projects of unconventional methods such as peat filtration.
In 1999, Letcher was one of only 22 Kentucky counties that sponsored mandatory garbage pick-up and was recognized as an innovator in providing solid waste disposal in a rugged, rural environment by using more nimble vehicles that could navigate steep mountain roads. Carroll spoke out against flooding caused by mountaintop removal mining and tried to protect landowners from logging practices that damaged streams.
Letcher County was one of the first Kentucky counties to implement a smoking ban in April 2006.
Carroll’s policy appeared to get results. In 2002, Letcher County’s per capita income increased 32.3 percent over 1997.
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