By TIM THORNBERRY
FRANKFORT, Ky. — Since taking office nearly a year ago, Agriculture Commissioner James Comer has had his hands full in cleaning up problems from the previous administration.
He first authorized a complete audit of the Kentucky Department of Agriculture (KDA) to “restore morale … and to ensure the integrity of its operations.”
The audit alleged multiple misuses of the department and its resources by former Commissioner Richie Farmer.
In a statement from Kentucky State Auditor Adam Edelen, whose office conducted the audit, he said: “The report paints a clear picture of an administration that had no qualms about treating taxpayer resources as its own. The former commissioner had state employees on state time take him hunting and shopping, mow his yard, build a basketball court in his backyard and even chauffer his dog.
“He showered himself with gifts and office equipment and rewarded friends with jobs. These are just some of the documented abuses that should outrage every Kentuckian.”
One project undertaken by the Farmer administration that has come under fire is a new fuel-testing lab. KDA is responsible for testing fuels for quality and quantity, as well as pesticides. Until Farmer came into office the testing was done at out-of-state labs.
He proposed the new lab, telling legislators the cost would be offset by savings from no longer using those interstate labs, and by charging other states to do their testing. The lab cost millions to equip but the money Farmer said would come in from its services never materialized. In fact, it was discovered the facility was losing hundreds of thousands of dollars a year, according to information from KDA.
Comer said although the lab had the equipment to do the pesticide testing, there had never been any such test conducted – even though there had been a full-time pesticide chemist there for four years.
“They never tested the first vial of pesticides. In fact, all the pesticides that we test in the department, we still mail to an out-of-state lab to be tested,” he said.
Other falsehoods the audit alleged Farmer made, regarding the lab, included the testing of fuels from surrounding states and the idea the facility was making money. Comer said never has fuel from outside Kentucky been tested there, and the lab was “hemorrhaging” close to $900,000 per year.
Comer, along with Larry Cox, executive director of the KDA’s Office for Consumer and Environmental Protection, and Steve Kelly, executive director of the Office for Strategic Planning and Administration, testified in front of the state’s Interim Joint Committee on Agriculture regarding the department’s effort to clean up the fuel testing program mess.
“We are going to be transparent at the department, but I want the General Assembly to know. They invested a lot of money in this lab and it’s not doing anything it was billed to do,” Comer said. “It’s not even close.”
He noted when the previous administration made projections when requesting funding for the facility, those were based on the ability to perform 50 tests each day. “I can tell you we’ve had the University of Kentucky Center for Applied Research and Energy and other private testing companies come in and look at the fuel lab. The most tests we could run in one day, if we were at full capacity, would be 10,” Comer said.
“The reality of the lab is, it’s way off-track from the reports we had been given, what the General Assembly had been given and what the taxpayers of Kentucky had been given.”
Before this lab opened, the state spent about $250,000 a year on testing samples to out-of-state labs. The Farmer administration received an initial $3.1 million for the lab’s equipment and lost approximately $3.5 million over the next four years, according to Comer.
“That’s not a good deal for the taxpayers, and I want people to know that,” he said. Comer thinks KDA should continue to do the fuel testing, but said it can be done much more cost-effectively.
The Comer administration is on track to save $500,000 on the lab this year by cutting costs, including the number of people working there, by half, but he emphasized it’s still losing a lot of money. “It’s still going to lose half a million dollars this year and we are watching every penny,” he said.
Comer has appointed a Fuel Lab Task Force, all volunteers, to find ways to save more money concerning the facility.
“We have all learned some great lessons from this process,” he said. “The taxpayers were sold a concept that had no business plan and no follow-through. My office is committed to righting this ship. We have made great progress, and our work continues.”