Nelson reflects on overcoming challenges as Middlesboro mayor

Published 4:00 am Friday, December 16, 2022


After 17 years as state representative and a few more days in office, finishing up a four-year term, Rick Nelson reflects on his accomplishments as well as challenges during his time as mayor of Middlesboro as his time in office comes to a close.

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“In 2018, I was state representative for the Bell County district, and I had been state representative for 18 years,” Nelson said. “And there was a lot of traveling involved, and being away from home, and I had some individuals who had always asked me to run for mayor. So in 2018, I made the decision to try to run for mayor and was fortunate enough that folks had confidence in me, and we were able to talk office in January of 2019

“In 2019, when we came in, we were deeply in debt, with unpaid bills that totaled about $75,000.”

Nelson has lived in Middlesboro since 1977, and so has a vested interest in the city, but realized it had some problems with finances and structural issues.

In 2018, the Middlesboro sewer plant had two major violations, and the city was fined $30,000. The city’s police cars, fire trucks, ambulances and street departments equipment were old.

“We had a lot of work to do. The major thing we ran on back in 2018 was finances,” said Nelson. “And as you know, [in] everyday life, or government, if you don’t have your financial house in order you can do nothing else.”

Nelson said in the beginning, when he first came into office, he was faced with many tough decisions. One of these tough decisions came in the first year choosing to close the city swimming pool.

“We didn’t have, in my opinion, enough revenue to pay the life guards, repair leaks, and it was about $100,000,” said Nelson. “We got a lot of criticism for closing the swimming pool, but I am happy to report that this year we were able to open the swimming pool back up, and were able to sufficiently pay the life guards, and I think it was a big success.”

Nelson went into detail about purchases made for the street department, first responders, and other grants and funding for the city. According to Nelson, much of the equipment for the police department, street and sewer department, and fire department were outdated and in desperate need of an upgrade.

“Middlesboro is in fact the only city in the area to have its own excavator,” said Nelson. The city also purchased four used trucks to spread salt, a new backhoe, a reach arm mower, and a new wood chipper, and much more, all together investing several hundred thousands of dollars into the street and sewer department.

For the police department, during Nelson’s time in office he updated their roughly 20 year old police cars with 18 new vehicles, and 3 more ordered. The police department was also able to install a new CAD system, or a radio communication system. The city received a grant for a new digital radio system, to fix the problem of dead areas that the current radio signal will not reach, allowing the officers to communicate with each other with little static.

A few years ago, Middlesboro voted to go moist, allowing businesses seating 50 people to sell alcoholic beverages. Roughly two years ago, the city voted to allow beer and liquor stores; because of Middlesboro’s population, the city is allowed three.

“We bring in about $23,000 a month on that [alcohol sales], and that goes all to the police department,” said Nelson.

Nelson recalls some of the problems with the sewer system in Middlesboro, and the steps being taken to repair it.

“Think of the sewer plant as your car engine, and then there are the sewer pipes that run out to people’s homes; some of those pipes date back to 1890,” he said. “They’re clay pipes.”

Nelson explained that there are not only a lot of leaks in them, but also when it rains, some are unable to handle flushing toilets. There is about $10 million still needed to fully repair the sewers in Middlesboro, and the project to repair the system is just beginning. Although there is much more work to be done on the system, the city purchased a sewer clean-out machine as well as a camera that is able to look inside the pipes to see the exact problem.

During Nelson’s time as mayor, the city has replaced 600 streetlights with brighter LEDs for safety. There are about 1,300 street lights in the city, so far the city has been able to replace half of them.

All of these projects are complete or underway, explained Nelson, and as of right now, the city of Middlesbsoro has approximately 2 million dollars in ready cash available for spending.

“Back in the 70s and 80s, Middlesboro was a downtown town; there was no malls, so people congregated to downtown, and every Saturday they’d put their merchandise out and have giant sidewalk sales. Then the mall came along.” Said Nelson

After the introduction of the mall and Walmart, downtown Middlebsoro struggled. When Nelson became Mayor, he set out on a mission to help revitalize downtown. Now, in an effort to support local businesses, the council and city decided to pay the rent of qualifying new downtown businesses.

Despite once being a Kentucky state legislator, Nelson’s years as mayor have not all been easy. Nelson explained some of the issues he ran into during his time as mayor.

“There’s a few things I wish I could have done over,” Nelson said. “One of the biggest issues I think we’ve faced is personnel. We’ve got 90 employees, and on any given time or day they might have some problems, or you might have to discipline some, but we’re thankful to all our departments and our department heads.”

Nelson says, however, his 18 years of experience in Frankfort familiarized him with the inner workings of the office.

“Covid [set us back] a little bit, and we’ve had a couple of floods while I’ve been here in office, but we’ve got a good committee for our fall festival, Levitt’s going strong, we had a good Christmas parade, and were opening the pool up,“ Nelson said. “We came in with bad finances, but we’re in good shape there. All equipment we’ve gotten is paid for, and we’ve got good people in our departments who know what they’re doing.”

Nelson spoke a little about his successor, Boone Bowling, saying he will extend an arm and be a resource to Bowling if he needs him to be one.

“We have worked with the new and upcoming mayor and we’ve already had several meetings, and I’ve promised to be a resource if he needs me,” said Nelson.  “We’ve talked to him [Boone], and I’ve told him whatever I can do to help him out, I’m here for him.”

“It’s been a pleasure and I appreciate the citizens giving me an opportunity back in 2018, to have confidence in me,” said Nelson. “It was an honor being the Mayor for four years.”