Comer closes Richie Farmer's fuel lab; Replaces deputy commissioner with Larry Cox

04/03/2013 03:18 PM

The $3.1 million plan to make money by testing fuels and pesticides in-state turned into a money loser for taxpayers and now will be no more.

Current Agriculture Commissioner James Comer announced Wednesday that his department would close the Kentucky fuel and pesticide testing lab that was the brainchild of former Commissioner Richie Farmer.

Farmer proposed the lab in 2008. But when Comer took over the department in January 2012, he said it was clear within the first 24 hours after his swearing in that the lab had problems.

“There were no contracts with surrounding states. The pesticide lab wasn’t even being used – in fact all the pesticides that we tested here within the department we were sending out of state to a private lab,” Comer said. “In addition there was no business plan to see how this thing would succeed.”

Comer told reporters gathered in a rented laboratory building that it was 48 hours after his swearing-in that he made changes to management. Soon after, he put together a task force to study the fuel labs insufficiency.

In fiscal year 2011, the operation of the lab and overhead ran the department $900,000 in taxpayer funds. Steve Kelly, the executive director for the office of strategic planning within the Ag Department, told reporters it was evident the department could not sustain that investment.

At $50 per gas station in Kentucky the department only brings in around $153,000 a year for in state testing – and with no out of state business coming in, and often triplicate equipment things were out of control.

On Wednesday, the decision was announced to shut down the lab and to outsource the testing to private businesses — a move Comer and officials within the department say will save taxpayers $600,000.

Overall, Comer told reporters that Kentuckians will not be affected at all by the decision to shut down the facility — other than a savings to state coffers.

The added scrutiny to the department since the audit has not stopped.

The latest personnel change announced Wednesday was the departure of Bruce Harper, the former Dir. of Outreach and Development under Farmer, and until recently the Deputy Commissioner of Agriculture under Comer.

Harper was asked to step down or be terminated in his role with the department after the Executive Branch Ethics Commission last month leveled three charges against him for soliciting donations from businesses the department regulates during a 2008 Southern Association of State Departments of Agriculture conference.

The commission also charged him for interfering with the enforcement and penalty procedures of the office of state Veterinarian by instructing employees to probate a fine for a farmer who violated the dead animal disposal laws. The ethics commission said he did so because the farmer contacted his state representative who contacted Harper to remove the fine.

Replacing Harper will be Larry Cox, who served in the department before as the Executive Director for the office of consumer and environmental protection. Cox also served as state director to U.S. Sen. Mitch McConnell.


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