Gladys Maynard, a 58-year-old retired beautician who lives in Martin County, Kentucky, learned a meaningful lesson about power this past winter when the leadership of the Kentucky House of Representatives buried an unmined minerals tax bill which she had been pushing. As chair of the Kentucky Fair Tax Coalition, Maynard was leading a battle to bring greater fairness to the Kentucky property tax system.
Minerals are taxed at such a minuscule rate that the absentee corporations controlling most of the wealth of eastern Kentucky get by with incredibly small tax bills. In Martin County, for example, Pocahontas-Kentucky Corporation, a subsidiary of Norfolk and Western Railroad, of Roanoke, Virginia, owns 55 percent (81,333 acres) of the county’s minerals yet pays only $76 in annual property taxes. Royalties on their minerals, which are leased primarily to other large corporations, amounted to over $17 million in 1981, according to the county tax assessor.
The statewide citizen effort for an equitable tax on minerals was brought to an abrupt halt by coal industry pressure on the legislature. What follows is Gladys Maynard’s story of how she came to participate in the struggles of Martin County and central Appalachia, an area where “coal is king.” She told her story to Joe Szakos, an organizer for the Appalachian Alliance, a regional group which recently completed a land study that documented the extent of absentee ownership of land and minerals in central Appalachia and detailed the low property tax bills that out-of-state corporations receive. For a full report on the study, see “Who Owns Appalachia?” in Southern Exposure, Vol. X, No. 1, or write the Appalachian Alliance, P.O. Box 66, New Market, TN 37820.
I’m the third generation of my family to live in Martin County, so my roots are here. But we had to leave about 1950. My husband, Vernal, had been working in the mines, and he got sick with arthritis. The doctors recommended that he get out of the mines because it was so damp.
So we had to look for another place to raise our family. Most of our relatives were already in Ohio, in Dayton, and we knew the area since we had lived there for a short time when we first got married. Vernal felt pretty sure that he could find other work there. In fact, he had never found work in Martin County; when he was working in the mines, it was across the river in West Virginia.
After we moved to Dayton, Vernal worked in a foundry for almost 10 years. But the iron and steel dust, along with the coal dust from before, really got to him. In 1959, after four lung operations, he became disabled. But there were no Social Security benefits then. I had to work so hard that I just couldn’t earn enough money to keep the house going, my beauty shop going and take care of three kids in school. So we settled out everything; I thought there must be an easier way and decided to move back to Martin County and put up a beauty shop.
It really wasn’t much easier. It was more of a struggle to accomplish what I wanted to — even to purchase property or set up a business. I ran into difficulties. The politics were a lot different. When you have to make a way to survive, to set up a business, you have to learn fast when you’re dealing with local powers, with politicians.
About the only thing to do was to work our way out of it. You often had to keep your mouth shut and just mark it down as experience. Now, looking back on it, there was just a whole list of things being chalked up to experience and held for later use.
When I moved back with three teenage children, they actually taught me a lot about the community that I didn’t know myself. I had been very active with children’s activities in Ohio, but when we returned to Kentucky, there wasn’t much for the children to do. But some of their experiences in school showed me how influential the board of education was, especially since the board was the largest employer in the county at the time.
I began studying the political structure of the county, trying to understand what it was all about and putting it together, learning who had power. It was kind of a hard thing to do — I had to listen to people talk, listen to customers and be careful what was said because I had to depend on them for a living. It wasn’t my nature to make people mad, and it bothered me that I couldn’t speak out and hold my own. It also bothered me that other people would not take their own part and speak out.
I couldn’t understand why they would have that much fear. Then I began to realize that it was their jobs. If they didn’t vote right, they didn’t eat right. There was not much access to public knowledge, public rules, regulations. Everybody would just do what they were told.
Then, sometime in the early 1970s, Vernal and I met Lorraine Slone, who had returned to the county from Ohio. We began to compare notes and study the structure. And several others became involved who didn’t like the way things were being done, were opposed to the county politics and did not like the education their children were getting. We began to make notes and start a collection.
We soon realized the personnel for the board of education were also officials, leaders, in the Democratic and Republican parties. One day someone said, “Well, it’s like a pyramid.” From there, we began to put the structure together, with the superintendent of schools at the top. One side of the triangle was made up of Republicans and the other side by Democrats. The director of pupil personnel was also the chairperson of the county Republican Party. And his wife was a board member. A secretary of finance at the board of education was the secretary of the county Democratic Party. The chairperson of the Democratic Party was a school principal.
When we began to check out the election officers in each precinct, there was usually one or two teachers at each polling place. Also, there might be a janitor, or a cook, or some of their families. It was just a close-knit thing that prevented people from being free to go to the polls and vote independently.
The qualified people would run for office and get such a small number of votes that it would be embarrassing for them to stay in Martin County politics. They usually ended up leaving the county to find employment. In Dayton, it was much different. There was more community participation. People worked together well and you were part of it.
When I first came back here, they had a parent-teachers group at the Warfield School, and I tried to get involved. But it was, “I don’t want to hear how they did it in Ohio.” By the second year, a teacher was president of the PTA and by the third year, it was phased out entirely.
It just seemed that county officials or school officials wanted to deal with people on a one-to-one basis. They really didn’t want organized groups.
Our first attempt to work with a group was in 1972 when a committee formed up Route 292 to improve the road. There was not much coal mining from the 1930s until the early 1960s. But after the coal trucks came back, the roads wouldn’t hold up the weight. Route 292 was just one big pothole after another.
I guess I began talking with some customers who came into the beauty shop, and they informed me there had been a meeting called. I went because we had so much trouble with the dusty road from here to Warfield, which is two miles away. It was also a problem to get to the nearest hospital. The hospital is on the Kentucky side of the river, but we had to cross a toll bridge, go up the West Virginia side, cross like seven railroad crossings. At that time, an ambulance would often be delayed, and it would take at least an hour to get to the hospital. Where, if it could be traveled on the Kentucky side on 292, it could have gone straight up the riverfront within probably 20 minutes.
As I rode to that first meeting, I was concentrating on the roads and I probably had some hopes of getting to people a little higher on the state level. There was actually no plan in my mind. But letter-writing campaigns followed, letters to the governor and the state department of transportation and meetings in Frankfort, the state capital.
We had state officials here for a big dinner in an open field — we did that several times. We made signs posted along the road. This went on for several years, and we were known as the Citizens for Better Roads. The chairperson was Clyde Robinette, who had been involved in community organizing in West Virginia. He knew how to go about getting things done.
By the time we got the road finished — we finally got it hard-topped — there were a number of people beginning to get interested. We saw that we had to fight local officials and state officials.
We began to realize that we just had to fight. By this time, we had a new high school in the county, named Sheldon Clark High School, after the superintendent of schools. Along with the school came a new dress code that was so strict that it was a hardship on the local people.
I remember one substitute teacher who had just been hired for a few days, and the superintendent came to visit his class. By evening, he was called at home and told they didn’t need him any longer. So the next morning, he went to see the superintendent and the principal and asked them why he was laid off, why they didn’t need him. I guess the superintendent couldn’t give him any satisfaction. He ended up telling him that his papers, his certificates, were not in order. But I understand that he checked with the state and found out that everything was in proper order. But the teacher thought maybe it was because his hair was a little too long to pass the dress code. He realized he had been fired without really knowing why.
At this time, there was a board election coming up, so this young man was ready to fight too, and was willing to try and help us find out what was going on. He came up with the idea to pass a petition to change the name of the school and do away with the dress code. Several people from the Citizens for Better Roads group went to work on the petition. We gathered so many names that the board of education cancelled their meeting. We continued to work on the petition until their next meeting, and again they called it off. But we did not hear about the meeting being cancelled, and about 40 people went to the courthouse that afternoon. Meantime, we were locked out of the courthouse, locked out in the rain, and a photographer for the local paper took some pictures of us standing there.
Later, somebody came with the key and let us in the building. We discussed what we would do and decided that we would keep up until we could go before the board with our petition. And the coverage in the paper helped quite a bit, because the next time we got into the meeting.
I had been chosen to do the talking. This is the first time that I was in a leadership position. Actually, other things I had participated in were already organized. This was the first thing I had ever been working with starting from the ground up. Well, I wasn’t thinking of myself as a leader. I had all the materials I had gathered, and I wanted to put it all together by that time. I wanted to talk about it. I wanted to tell them.
Because there were people in the room that the board did not know, they really got upset. They had not been used to dealing with that many people at one time. Apparently, they wanted no part of our ideas. But we did come out of that meeting with a promise to meet with the board and with a committee on the dress code.
The board brought the name of the school to a vote, and we lost. The rules of the dress code were not changed, but they sort of faded out.
By this time, I believe as a result of this pressure, there had been a new board member elected, but he stood alone for four years. Meantime, we attended all the board meetings and county government meetings and kept track of what was going on.
I guess it was during the road project that we started to collect names, addresses and phone numbers of people in other counties and other community groups. We got on every mailing list and attended as many workshops as possible. We had lots of fundraising projects going on and had some travel money of our own. We would usually send a couple of representatives to any kind of meeting that we thought would be of use to us.
The people of the road committee pretty well kept in touch. We had been meeting in a church, but they got new people in the church and didn’t want to let us use the building. So we met in homes and kept the organization going. Some people moved away. Some found a job in the mines, since the coal boom hit the county. Actually, we noticed that when somebody was employed at the mines, they became inactive and dropped out. At that time, I was the only one that didn’t have children in school and had the time for training. I was offered a fellowship with the Southern Appalachian Leadership Training Program in the fall of 1976, and I accepted.
County residents were asking about a number of issues. They wanted to know how to file for black lung benefits, Social Security, and after the April, 1977, flood, how to get governmental assistance. So we helped with the information we had been gathering and did what we could. For the flood work, we formed the Flood Preparation Group.
Then, in January of 1980, I learned that the county housing agency was going to move the entire town of Beauty, about 100 families, with federal funds. They said it was to prevent the town from being flooded out, but there were rumors — rumors we never proved — that a coal company wanted to mine the land the town was on. I partly grew up in that community and knew every family that lived there. My husband’s parents had been relocated by a coal company a couple of years before. We knew how upset they were: “We don’t want to move again; we’ve already moved once.” There was talk about moving them to a new housing project. “We don’t want to move into a strange neighborhood,” they said.
The people of Beauty began to form an organization to stop the relocation plan, the Concerned Citizens of Martin County; then all the other community groups that had ever been in place, like the Flood Preparation Group and the Citizens for Better Roads, joined in. Several other individuals joined in, too. I knew there were enough people in Beauty — I knew their nature — that once someone tried to take something away from them or push them around, they would fight back. They got together two or three times a week for meetings and went over the proposal. They learned what it said and learned about the regulations.
They understood from the beginning what had to be done in order to save their homes. They made trips to Louisville and Washington. There were letters, phone calls, newspaper articles, TV reports and lots of officials coming to meetings. Finally, we got through to the head officials at the Department of Housing and Urban Development in Washington and they didn’t approve the project. They said it didn’t have proper citizen participation. A whole town had been saved.
I really did not have any idea that we could go that far and I could do part of it myself. I don’t like to see someone in a political position taking advantage of people. I found myself talking to people at their level, talking their language and understanding their ways of life. I may have knowledge of different parts of the country. Maybe I have met different people, maybe have been exposed to things and places a lot of them have no knowledge of. But I’d like to feel that they are comfortable when they talk to me — and I think they are. I think they trust me. I have been honest with those in this community. I still don’t want to think of myself in the leadership role, other than maybe helping get things done.
Until the Appalachian Alliance’s study was done on who owns the land and minerals and who pays the taxes, I don’t think I ever realized that taxes were part of the problem. I don’t think that I have been overtaxed, but the tax burden is on the homeowner and the corporations are just taking a free ride.
We have such a poor tax system that it’s got to result in poor county government services and a poor school system. We never had political leaders who cared about those things. They were interested in what they could personally gain from political offices. They let the big corporations come in and take everything out of the county, to take it away from less fortunate people who would have been able to take care of themselves if they had not been stripped of the opportunity.
It seems like the big coal and land companies become more greedy all the time, just reaching and raking in everything. Why, a surface land owner pays over 300 times as much in property taxes as a mineral owner for the same value of holdings. This isn’t fair, especially in a state where mineral owners can get out their minerals regardless of what the surface owner wants. In 12 eastern Kentucky counties we studied, a total of only $1,500 was collected in mineral property taxes in 1978 — and those minerals are worth billions.
When we began to challenge local property assessments of corporations, I never expected to become as involved as I have, especially on the state level. I never thought there would be anything I could do. I had an interest in finding out what groups in other counties were doing and what they were thinking about. I came to meetings, hoping to be one of the crowd. I never thought we would form the Kentucky Fair Tax Coalition (KFTC) and that at statewide meetings I would be leading them.
It has been quite a learning experience. I don’t know if I had any real hopes that we would get a bill passed in Kentucky to tax unmined minerals, the large holdings of out-of-state corporations. They make a lot of money on coal and other minerals, but don’t pay any property taxes on them.
When the KFTC got a tax bill filed, we learned that working with the state legislature is not much different from working with local politicians. I came out of that campaign kind of disappointed at the actions of the speaker of the house and the other representatives involved. There were just a few people in Frankfort blocking the bill. It seemed like the only thing to do was to go talk to them. We had great popular support and support from enough legislators to give us hope. But the bill never got debated and voted on.
The KFTC members got up long before breakfast and traveled to the capitol. We demanded a meeting with the speaker, Bobby Richardson, and after much hesitation he finally agreed to give us 15 minutes — all 50 of us. I expected at least a friendly reception in the capitol. When we met with Richardson — after he walked in with two security guards and several of his aides — we politely asked him why the bill never got a chance. His explanation plainly showed he had not read the bill.
As I sat there, it was a great disappointment to hear a man in his position make some of the statements he did. I couldn’t believe what I was hearing. He didn’t know what was in the bill! He said it couldn’t be done, even though 19 other states tax minerals in the ground. In fact, it insulted me that he would make a decision for all the other representatives and not let it come to the floor for an open debate and vote. I didn’t know one person would have that much power and control of what happened to the bill.
We later learned that the speaker is a lawyer whose firm represents at least one large mineral company. The speaker pro tern has law firm clients that are either in the coal or oil-and-gas business. It seems that they were instrumental in blocking our tax bill so that their law firm clients would be protected. I guess that coal companies own the legislature in that sense.
Back home in Martin County, we have been trying to deal with the absentee land ownership problem. After sitting in on the tax board hearings for the last three years, I realized you could challenge property assessments by filing a letter with the county clerk, asking that the assessments of individual corporations be reviewed.
The Concerned Citizens of Martin County felt corporate land owners were not assessed at fair market value. Last year, under pressure and publicity we generated, the county assessor raised the Pocahontas-Kentucky Corporation and Martiki Corporation assessments from $50 to $200 an acre. But we went before the local tax board to ask that they be assessed at more than that. Also, we wanted Martiki’s equipment to be assessed at more than $18 million since they claim to have the world’s largest mountaintop removal operation and one of their draglines alone costs about that much.
On July 14, 1982, we went before the local tax board — it was quite a day. I was sitting there, on the witness stand, before the county attorney, Pocahontas’s attorney, Martiki’s lawyer. Although we didn’t get the land reassessed, we did accomplish something by having a hearing, raising our questions. It had never been done before. Even though we lost at the county level, I feel more strongly than ever that we should press on to the state board, or to the Supreme Court if we have to, to get a fair tax system. It’s exciting since residents of other counties are doing the same thing.
There has to be a conflict of interest when some county officials don’t push for a fair tax system. It seemed odd that Drewie Muncy, the county attorney, had so many objections to our questions. He was elected to represent the people, but I kind of felt like he was leaning to the corporations. Of course, his law firm represents Massey Coal, which leases from Pocahontas, one of the absentee owners we were challenging. [Editor’s note: A complaint to the bar charging conflict of interest has been filed against Muncy, and appeals are in the works against Martiki and Pocahontas-Kentucky.]
I think people are just beginning to realize what the corporations own and what little is coming back from taxes. Due to some of the hard work put in by some concerned citizens, people are realizing this — it was never discussed before. People know the coal will not always be here and, when the companies leave, they are going to leave the land torn up, there won’t be much employment. Right now, I’d like to see if they have any intention of turning the land back to the people.
I feel like maybe I’m too critical about the community in which I live. I’d like to be building instead of taking away. I think it’s fun when people work together and understand together what the problems are and how to go about dealing with them. I can look back and see an awful lot of changes. If we had the leadership to protect what we have and build it, things would move much faster. I feel sure that if enough people become involved, things will get better and better.
New ideas are sometimes hard to get across, but I’m still optimistic.