MORGANTOWN – Opponents of West Virginia Democratic gubernatorial candidate Jim Justice made sure the press saw the story in the Lexington (Ky.) Herald-Leader newspaper.
“Coal companies controlled by a billionaire running for Governor of West Virginia owe $3.5 million in delinquent property taxes in Eastern Kentucky, shortchanging schools and other public agencies at a time many are struggling.”
The paper reports that “Justice has made efforts to pay down his delinquent property tax debt in Kentucky and elsewhere, but it has taken prodding by local officials and his companies are still millions behind.”
The paper went so far as to report that the Pike County school system’s share of delinquent taxes in 2013 was enough to pay the salaries and benefits two school teachers.
There is, as always, another side to the story. Tom Lusk, a spokesman for Justice’s Southern Coal Company, said in an email to me that the Kentucky tax obligations are being paid and will be paid in full.
“It should be pointed out that many other companies have opted for the easy out — BANKRUPTCY — where taxes, vendors, and workers are all devastated. Justice continues to pay his obligations and keep people working.”
Lusk said Justice has already paid $4 million in back taxes to McDowell and Wyoming Counties in West Virginia owed by the Russian company Mechel Mining, which bought Bluestone Resources in 2009 and then sold the company back to Justice earlier this year.
“Many county services to the good citizens of these counties did not have to be curtailed because these obligations were paid,” Lusk said. However, the Herald-Leader reports a different version of events. “Martin West, the sheriff in McDowell County, W.Va., said Justice paid about $1 million in taxes after West threatened to sue, but still owes about $300,000 in delinquent taxes.”
Previously, when asked about delinquent taxes or slow payment of bills, Justice has explained that he owns dozens of companies and each is responsible for its own obligations. That makes sense from a business perspective.
However, that is a tougher sell publicly when you are running for Governor and you have significant personal wealth. Fiscal nuances of corporate structure don’t hold up well against stories about overdue debts.
When the campaign gets rolling Justice will presumably want to talk about his vision for West Virginia, but campaigns frequently bog down in other things — intemperate remarks or personal foibles or, in the case of Jim Justice, how and when his companies pay their bills.
Kercheval is host of TalkLine, broadcast by the MetroNews Statewide Radio Network from 10 a.m. to noon Monday through Friday.