By KEN SHMIDHEISER, Managing Editor and HEATHER TOMLINSON, Staff Writer Commonwealth Journal
Brook Ping’s name was in the news on multiple fronts Friday, none of which he found pleasant:
• His name was prominently mentioned in a letter from Somerset Mayor Eddie Girdler to County Judge-Executive Barty Bullock demanding the reimbursement of $65,000 the city had forwarded the county to help purchase a $200,000 tract of land for a new senior citizens center from Ping, and
• Ping was at the center of a flurry of police activity as officers cordoned off the site of a former tobacco warehouse across from Pulaski County High School he owns where dirt and gravel from the construction of a new intersection at Main St. and KY 80 is being stored.
Ping, who chairs Somerset-Pulaski County United (SPCU), indicated it was his opinion that each action was in retaliation for his role in seeking a study of the benefits of merging county and city governments in Pulaski County. Somerset City Attorney Carrie Wiese and Somerset Mayor Eddie Girdler contended otherwise.
As chairman of SPCU, Ping last week unveiled plans to study the feasibility of a merger of county and city governments with the goal of Pulaski County becoming Kentucky’s third largest city, behind only Louisville and Lexington. The study is expected to cost $35,000, of which SPCU had hoped Somerset City Council and Pulaski Fiscal Court would each fund a third, with the 80-member SPCU paying the remaining 33 percent.
SPCU representatives were met with a negative reception when they attempted to approach Somerset City Council with their proposal during the council’s regular session Monday. Not only did the SPCU representatives receive a scolding from Mayor Girdler, but the council unanimously resolved to grant Girdler and Wiese with powers “to contract for any needed legal services to protect the continued existence of the City of Somerset.” (The city paid to have the resolution printed as a full-page ad in the Friday, April 12, 2013 edition of the Commonwealth Journal.)
Ping’s reception last Tuesday morning at Pulaski Fiscal Court was more cordial, with magistrates agreeing to consider SPCU’s proposal at the next fiscal court session when all magistrates are expected to be present.
In a letter and accompanying invoice for $65,000 dated April 11, 2013, to Judge-Executive Barty Bullock and obtained by the Commonwealth Journal through an Open Records request, Mayor Girdler wrote:
“Dear County Judge Bullock:
Over a year ago, you and the Fiscal Court asked the City Council to provide $65,000 to help buy property from Mr. Brooke [sic] Ping that the Court paid over $200,000 to purchase. At that time, you said that the county was broke and did not have even $65,000 to complete the purchase since Mr. Pink had given you a deadline because he wanted to take advantage of tax breaks. The promise was made that the Fiscal Court would reimburse the City of Somerset $65,000 once the money became available.
“Based upon the newspaper article that the Fiscal Court does have surplus cash to pay for studies, we assume that you now have sufficient cash to pay the City back the money that was promised. Therefore, we are now submitting the attached invoice in the amount of $65,000 that was used to purchase the property with the promise to pay back.”
Judge Bullock was at a conference in Frankfort when the letter was received at his office, and had not had sufficient time to respond at press time.
Wiese and Girdler both confirmed that the city let the county borrow the $65,000, but Girdler simply said they thought the county was in sufficient financial shape to request repayment.
“It was just a normal business transaction,” said Girdler.
Ping’s name was back in the news yesterday morning when a contingent of city officials and Somerset Police Department squad cars descended on Ping’s University Drive property and cordoned off the former tobacco warehouse site.
Wiese said the city had been receiving calls from residents near the area where the old tobacco warehouse buildings once stood who were concerned about growing piles of dirt and gravel there.
Wiese said road workers laboring on the Ky. 80 project appeared to have entered into an agreement with Ping to take leftover materials from the road project to the property, but she said documentation needed to carry that out had not been filed.
Somerset Building Inspector Wes Finley confirmed that, and Wiese said he spoke to Ping Thursday about the issue.
On top of that, Wiese said the dirt and gravel piles were not fenced off, and there had been no erosion plan put in place. She and Girdler went to the site Friday morning and studied the area.
“The gravel pile is probably two stories high,” said Wiese.
Children had reportedly been playing on the piles, which can destabilize quickly.
“It wouldn’t take much for that gravel to start toppling,” said Wiese.
Girdler evoked images of a tragedy in North Carolina, where two young children were killed earlier this week when a dirt wall toppled onto them while they were playing.
“This is a safety and health issue,” said Girdler. “ ... We received neighborhood complaints and questions as to why the city would allow these to exist.”
Wiese said police officers simply helped out with their caution tape, and aided city workers in taping off the dirt and gravel piles to warn people of the danger “until they get in there and get it leveled out or whatever,” said Wiese.
Wiese also said workers weren’t told to stop work on the site. She said they were asked not to add to the piles of dirt and gravel.
“We would’ve done the exact same thing on that piece of property, regardless of who owned it,” said Wiese. “ ... They were not told they couldn’t go on the property. All we told them was ‘don’t make the piles any higher until we deal with this.’”
Ping said he had received a verbal consent and release to work on the property, but acknowledged that he had not completed paperwork for a BMP (Best Management Practices) permit to control runoff from the site.
“The city had approached me and asked if they could stockpile some soil from a nearby site where they were working on my property, and I gave them permission to store their soil on my land for free,” Ping told the Commonwealth Journal.