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Watershed Tax and the Future of Water Control in West Kentucky
Richard Jackson speaks with attorney Bryan Wilson

He was tall, standing over 6 feet. His face had been sculpted through the ages by hard experiences, hard work and glint of inner personal strength. As he looked me in the eyes, I had the feeling of a Gary Cooper from a movie where the time and age in which the hardness of life was the normal of life.

He and I were standing in the hallway of the First United Methodist Church in Clinton, Kentucky and we were man bonding. This rare event takes place when two strong men make first eye contact. Within the time span of a few seconds, each will take the measure of the other. In the old west, this was the time just before individual actions took place, the drawing of a weapon to shoot or the thrusting of a hand outward for the first hand sake between two spirit who understand watch other .

His name was Richard Jackson and he had come to town for justice, traveling form deep within the Graves County farming community. He and I talked about the harshness of the weather cycles of the past two years. In strong voice from years of surviving Mother Nature, Jackson told me, “I would much rather endure the blinding heat and sweat of the summer as I would the constant feeling of being chilled all winter.”  Just before we reached the doorway into the meeting hall way, he added,”A man of action works best in the heat. The cold surrounds you with darkness of body and spirit.” I agreed!

This gathering had been called by the Carlisle, Graves, Fulton, and Hickman County Conservation District Boards to conduct a special hearing. These were the counties that comprised the Obion Creek Watershed. The Watershed leadership had come to enforce their special tax on the management of reHickman County farmers pairs on the Creek. The stated purpose of this tax was to be used to keep the Creek clean and maintain repairs on large water structures for flood control.

The mood of morning was cemented by the words of the lawyer. “We have but one purpose here today. That is to vote on the petition of one Richard Jackson for relief and detachment from this tax by being allowed to be taken out of the watershed.”

Everyone in the room understood the real purpose of the meeting. If the watershed tax was proven to be a hardship to the land owner and the land owner could show no benefit from being a part of the watershed, then that landowner had the right to petition for relief by being allowed to drop out of the watershed.

The lawyer spoke again. “The rules will be that each county present will have one vote only.” Setting at the 10 ft. circular  tables were farmers from each county. Their reserved mood at the four tables reflected just how serious a question was before them.

The lawyer spoke to the issue at hand. “Mr. Jackson of Graves County has come before this body to ask to be released from the watershed and its taxation. Each county can only vote Yes or No to the issue. And there will be no written record kept of this mornings proceeding.”

And with that, the group moved to brand its own “administrative justice” on Richard Jackson and all who live within the boundaries of the Onion Creek Watershed.

The lawyer called the roll. “Graves County, No!” “Carlisle County, No! “Hickman County, No!”
And finally with no surprise, “Fulton County, No!”

With each answer, all in the room knew that there could be no other outcome if the Watershed was to keep control over the water and the Creek. If Mr. Jackson was allowed to withdraw, than all the urban suburbs around Clinton, Wingo, Water Valley, Arlington, and Mayfield could file for the same relief. All told, a land area of 206,000 acres and a population of 2326 would now be under the direct taxation of about 80 farmers.

In a previous attempt to lift their veil of secrecy, the Watershed Board had conducted an information meeting back in the early fall of 2010. It was at this meeting that several facts had emerged into public light:

Fact No.1; The watershed group had been around since 1956 when it had been organized.

Fact No.2: There had not been a tax on the watershed since the mid 1970’s.

Fact No.3: There was no direct election of the public to this Watershed special board, only farmers who lived in the district were appointed by other farmers who were already on the board.

Fact No.4: The money raised from the taxes would be to repair and or keep the watershed clear of damage.

Within fact no. 4 was the issue of over 14 flood and sediment retaining structures. In layman’s terms these water structures are large man made lakes on private property. When asked to explain about these water structures, the answer was quite shocking. The average size of each water feature was 50 acres of water contained in a private lake on private land with out public access.

Thus, on this cold January Friday morning, Mr. Jackson learned that he had no rights before the special called meeting of the Watershed Board.  Standing tall after the vote, I could see in his eyes that the battle had not been lost. In fact, his face showed a quiet strong resolve to take the battle to the next step. In that moment of reflection, it seem as if all the characters Gary Cooper ever played on the big screen had nothing to compare to this one man, strength in his every being, steel eyes and steel sense of purpose, understanding how lady justice had just been kidnapped by the land and water barons who were determined on seizing control of all water rights in the valley.

Like a good old western movie, the cast of characters were now set. The cartel of farmers and mega farming interest stood against the lone dusty fighter who dared to challenge the status quo. These are the two extremes of daring and thought. Somewhere between these two extremes slumbers the vast middle ground and most of the population.

Now, after the first shots of public discourse have been fired, the timeline of event dynamics demand a sequence of issues to be addressed. Waiting like land mines in soft plowed ground are several overriding issues and questions that the watershed has now put into action or as those who watch such timelines take shape understand, “the Watershed question is now in play” The outcome of this legal question will also lay the foundation for the larger question of who will control water in West Kentucky or even the whole state. Kentucky is divided into watershed districts statewide. 

Central to the future actions of relief in any class action lawsuit will be these questions:
1. How can a regional tax be levied without no direct representation of those who must pay the tax?
2. Has the Watershed organization become a new regional government with taxing and zoning powers?   .      
3. Or, has the Watershed organization redefined itself as a “municipal city” under the definition of cities under the 1992 constitutional amendment to the Kentucky Constitution?
4. Who has legal rights to the reserve water storage in the water structures for disaster planning and relief, public recreation and drinking water?
5. Did any of these special farmers receive any federal funds for soil and water conservation and did any of this money go toward the Watershed problems?

These questions will most likely be resolved in a court of law. However, within the court of public opinion, there is stirring a new type of public awareness. This is the awaking of an embittered middle class who feels that big and corrupt government has taken away the spirit of the American experiment in order to benefit large banks, big corporations, mega and corporate farming.

At the end of the day, the primary issue will be “the use of public monies to directly prop up or benefit a few chosen corporations for their private gain or well being at the expense of the public sector.” 

In today’s political climate, this type of funding is call “too big to allow to fail.”

This type of thinking has become the foundation of massive federal money bailouts of mega corporations and banks.

Large corporate farmers are now being linked into this situation for review. Case in point is Hickman County. In 2010, Hickman County was listed by the federal government as having a higher per capital income of Louisville, Kentucky at $57,000 per person. This made Hickman County number one highest per capital income in Kentucky. The reason for this was that over the past decade, Hickman County large farmers received $42 million dollars in federal funds for special agricultural programs. Just 25 families received most of this money.  
Sen. Rand PaulThe vote and actions of taxation without representation is just the cause or call to action that the founders of the Tea Party had in mind when they organized in 2010. When the major national Tea Party leader, Rand Paul campaigned at the Cayce Picnic in August of 2010, he preached a new attitude toward big government and more taxes. He stood against the two.

Now as a US Senator, it is likely he will listen to his many supporters from the Tea Party who will not understand the type of “administrative justice” that was handed down to Richard Jackson. Senator Paul will be the point of the spear for leadership in the US Senate for cutting the federal budget of unnecessary programs or waste in government.  It is likely that this issue of who controls the water in a watershed and who has the right of taxation over that water will become part of any agenda for reviewing the massive federal budget for farm payments under the Freedom to Farm Bill.  

Maybe, just maybe, Richard Jackson knows several Tea Party members from Graves County, or Hickman County who are just itching to find a new campaign for their energies in setting America free of corporate and public wrong doing. One man must walk a hard path to fight against the corporate beast, however, the movement of many “Mr. Jacksons” can move mountains or at least control who has the rights to water in their community.

Maybe, just maybe, that was why I detected a slight smile form on the wind harden face of Richard Jackson, as he made his way out of the meeting and into the gentle  embrace of the warming day. I sense in his own way and time that the Cooperesque inner strength in Richard Jackson knows very well that this was just the beginning of the fight. It is men like Richard Jackson that fight on principle and when they feel wronged, there is no backing down to the struggle. To them right is right and wrong is wrong. Life is a simple division between good and evil.

Rather then a meeting room in Clinton, Kentucky that this case or issue is best discussed in federal court. I suspect that this is the first part of a very long and hard struggle between the powers in this case. Maybe Richard Jackson should be thinking about the movie rights to his story. I know who would have been the perfect actor to play him.

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