In Harvesting Tax Breaks, Herald-Leader Reporters John Cheves and Linda Blackford revealed that a tax break intended to save productive farms for future generations instead often winds up benefiting developers or the owners of suburban homes surrounded by vast lawns.
As a result, large landowners enjoy reduced overhead, while their less-fortunate neighbors — middle-class homeowners and business owners — pay higher property taxes to compensate for lost revenue to schools, the city, the health department and other local services. Kentucky’s state government estimates that it will forfeit $98 million in revenue over the next two years because of this tax break.
The series sparked immediate reforms in Lexington and a legislative study of possible statewide reforms. It was awarded a 2016 McClatchy President’s Award. The judges cited “Harvesting Tax Breaks” as “an impressive example of identifying an outrageous problem that’s hiding in plain sight.”
A quarter-century after statewide education reform, some Kentucky communities and their elected officials — school boards, sheriffs, property valuation administrators and county attorneys — weren’t doing all they could to fund local schools, a Herald-Leader investigation found in February 2015.
Darrell Watts, facilities director at Breathitt County Schools, at the old swimming pool at Sebastian Middle School. The only public pool in the area is no longer in use and has been drained, but it holds rainwater that comes in through the leaky roof. Photo by Charles Bertram | Staff
The three-part series utilized a new digital storytelling tool within McClatchy, allowing the newspaper to present photos, interactive graphics, videos and databases at the appropriate places within the story.
The series began having an impact even before it was published. For example, Kentucky Fuel Corp., a company owned by West Virginia billionaire Jim Justice, started paying delinquent tax bills worth hundreds of thousands of dollars after the newspaper began asking questions. In Leslie County, local officials began an unprecedented effort to collect delinquent taxes following inquiries from the Herald-Leader.
The nation’s premier political race of 2014 played out in Kentucky, where U.S. Sen. Mitch McConnell successfully turned back a well-funded challenge from Kentucky Secretary of State Alison Lundergan Grimes to become majority leader of the Senate.
The Herald-Leader’s coverage of the race was exhaustive, in-depth and ahead of the curve. Here’s a sampling of the campaign coverage I edited:
Democrat Alison Lundergan Grimes and Republican Mitch McConnell, center, talked with Kentucky Tonight host Bill Goodman before Monday night’s U.S. Senate debate at KET.
PHOTO BY PABLO ALCALA | STAFF — Lexington Herald-Leader
The story of Eastern Kentucky’s continued struggles 50 years after a country lawyer focused the nation on its problems
In 1963, Harry Caudill of Whitesburg published Night Comes to the Cumberlands: A Biography of a Depressed Area, which shone a spotlight on the plundering of the mountains of Eastern Kentucky. The book forever changed Appalachia. On the eve of the book’s 50th anniversary, the Lexington Herald-Leader launched a yearlong look at the region’s struggles since Night was published.
Part 1 of 50 Years of Night, published in December 2012, examines the complicated life of Harry Caudill, a country lawyer who focused the world on the problems of Appalachia. Part 2, published in June and July 2013, examines how the coal industry has altered the land, people and economy of Eastern Kentucky in the past 50 years. Part 3, published in November and December 2013, explores the region’s battles with poverty, drug abuse and a lack of education. An epilogue was published on April 27, 2014.
The newspaper series was simultaneously transformed into an innovative publish-as-you-go e-book, which has sold hundreds of copies on Leanpub, Amazon and Apple.
Before the series was completed, Kentucky Gov. Steve Beshear and U.S. Rep. Hal Rogers launched an effort to devise a better future for Eastern Kentucky called Shaping Our Appalachian Future, or SOAR. In January 2014, President Barack Obama announced eight Appalachian Kentucky counties had been designated as one of the initial federal Promise Zones, giving them priority status in competing for money for housing, education, public safety and other needs. Fifty Years of Night was cited prominently in the region’s request for aid from the Obama administration.
The state also has initiated efforts to extend and widen the Mountain Parkway, the transportation backbone of Eastern Kentucky, and construct a high-speed Internet network in the region.
I’ve been leading a task force of employees from various divisions of the Lexington Herald-Leader for two years, helping the company find its footing in the ever-changing maze of social media.
It has been a long slog, filled with lots of hurdles, but we’ve learned a lot along the way. I’ll post more about those lessons learned soon. For now, I just want to share one measure of our success.