Inspired Paper on Injustice in Appalachian Property Taxes Wins First Ireland Prize in A&S Department of History

By Richard LeComte

LEXINGTON, Ky. -- Disparities in Appalachian property tax assessments – and the inability of counties to raise them because of a Kentucky law – has drawn the ire of Michelle Starkey, who delved into the subject with all the passion an undergraduate history major could muster.

The resulting essay, “Bleeding Eastern Kentucky,” received the first Ireland Paper Prize in History at the University of Kentucky. The award, from the Department of History in the College of Arts & Sciences, carries a $10,000 prize.

The prize honors Robert M. Ireland, a retired UK history faculty member who taught at UK for 41 years. Wm. Joseph Foran, a UK alumnus who was a student of Ireland’s, established the award to encourage and reward outstanding historical research and writing by history students.

Although Starkey, who graduated as a history major in December 2020, is more interested in ancient history, she took to this topic because of a senior seminar in Kentucky history taught by Kathryn Newfont, an associate professor.

“For this class, the focus was Kentucky woods and waters,” said Starkey, who’s from Lexington. “Dr. Newfont gave me a lot of pointers for the topic. The neat thing at UK is a special collections research facility, where you can find a lot of really interesting primary sources.”

Those resources include property-tax records and journalistic accounts of tax battles from Appalachian counties in eastern Kentucky and other primary sources.

"A number of sources donated a whole ton of their primary documents from the ‘70s and ‘80s,” she said.  “I started digging through that and then I started looking through newspapers, and that's really how this all kind of came about.”

One of the big problems facing counties in Appalachia was that much of the land was owned by absentee landholders – frequently coal companies -- who kept property taxes absurdly low. As a result, the counties couldn’t raise enough money to fund basic services – valuations sometimes were as low as $4 per acre.

Starkey notes that a land ownership study found that such absentee owners as coal corporations gobbled up land in Appalachia to the point where in a natural disaster the federal government was barred from placing emergency housing on large parcels of privately owned land.

“In the early 1980s results of the landmark Appalachian Land Ownership Study published findings that pointed to gross oversights in property tax evaluation on enormous tracts of land owned by absentee landowners and coal companies,” Starkey wrote. These findings were just the prod needed to stir up a hornet’s nest of reactions, resulting in several pieces of legislation put before the state to raise property taxes, to impose new unmined minerals taxes and to increase coal severance taxes.

As a result, Starkey said, a number of counties reviewed their property taxes and raised them in attempt to gain more revenue. She notes that officials in Harlan and Leslie counties raised valuations on absentee-owner land to a minimum of $105 or $200 an acre.

Unfortunately, the counties ran into a state law that limited such tax increases. The law, passed in 1979, limited local governments from raising taxes by more than 4%. The law, House Bill 44, originally was designed to protect homeowners in cities and suburban areas, but they impeded rural counties as well.

“In terms of overall revenue for the state, it's really not a lot of money, but in terms of revenue for that particular area, it would have been huge,” she said. “It was like they were putting a little band aid over here, but then this other guy is bleeding to death.”

The paper received praise from Starkey’s mentors, particularly Newfont.

“Michelle marshals a great deal of hard-won primary-source evidence to demonstrate how state tax policies worked to disadvantage eastern Kentucky communities in the late 20th century, and how state officials repeatedly dismissed local citizens' concerns about that troublesome issue,” Newfont said. “Michelle's work in this piece is so high quality that it already makes professional-level scholarly contributions.

“These contributions are especially impressive to me because I know she was entirely new to the complex fields of environmental history and Appalachian studies when she enrolled in senior seminar. She richly deserves this award.”

Starkey hopes to continue studying history as a graduate student; she found the A&S faculty to be helpful and stimulating in her studies.

“As far as the history department, I mean they have a lot of wonderful professors all around,” she said. “I’ve worked with a lot of them. I think they're all really exceptional.”