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Mingo County Commissioner met in a special session Tuesday to discuss unpaid bills related to the Ambassador Christian Academy. Travis Crum/Williamson Daily News

WILLIAMSON - Two Mingo County commissioners continued to defend the county's support of the Ambassador Christian Academy on Tuesday, overlooking a call to cut ties with the private school for possible violation of the separation of church and state.

A third commissioner was out-voted when it came time to approve paying utilities to two facilities used almost exclusively by Christian school students.

Last week, the national atheist organization, Freedom From Religion Foundation, sent a letter to the Mingo commission demanding they rescind a lease agreement with the school, which is housed in the former Williamson Middle School building.

The organization said it was representing several concerned Mingo residents who feared their tax dollars were helping fund a private religious organization.

A special meeting was held Tuesday for commissioners to discuss paying utilities to the gym and cafeteria of the former Williamson High School, which the Christian school is given preference to use.

Commissioner Thomas Taylor is opposed to paying those utilities because he said the gym and cafeteria should be available to everyone or the Christian school should pay for it.

Commission President Diann Hannah argued the gym was a public building and anybody can use it, but the Christian school is given preference before anyone else. The county has to pay bills when they are due, she added.

Commissioner Greg "Hootie" Smith agreed and handed out fliers to the public listing 12 Mingo County nonprofits he said do not have to pay utilities.

"Each one of these, they do not pay their fair share," Smith said. "My fellow commissioner has no problem paying the utilities for these organizations."

Taylor said his biggest complaint is the county is giving support to a private school amidst a budget crisis and layoffs. The county has given approximately $200,000 in utility payments to the school since it opened, he said.

"These nonprofits provide services to all the citizens of Mingo County," Taylor said, referencing the flier. "The utility bills in question are for a private school providing private education to only a select few students."

Ambassador Christian Academy and the grant-funded Hatfield and McCoy Museum are the only organizations that pay its own utilities. The county has not paid bills or utilities for the Christian school since August 2016, before it signed a new lease to take over payments, Smith said.

Hannah, who has grandchildren who attend the school and a son-in-law who is athletic director and drives a school bus, said she does not feel like she has a conflict of interest in voting on matters related to the school. She attends the Regional Church of God, the church overseeing the school, among other churches. She is often the voice of reason on the commission, she said, and it's her tax dollars at stake too.

"I guarantee I am one of the top tax payers, but I'm not complaining that I have to fund a public school," she said. "I don't have any kids in public school."

Hannah, who filed for re-election Tuesday, said her grandchildren attended the Christian school before she was elected.

"It reads like I have a self-interest, but I don't," she said. "If I had it my way we would still be sitting over at Delbarton, but now that I am on county commission, I am responsible for keeping the damages down."

Commissioners eventually adjourned the meeting after Hannah and Smith approved paying the utilities. Taylor voted against it.

After the meeting, Hannah addressed the letter sent to the county and said she has no intention of responding. The lease for the Christian school is handled through the Mingo County Redevelopment Authority, she said.

Leasha Johnson, executive director of the redevelopment authority, did not return a phone call by press time on Tuesday.

The Mingo County commission in 2013 purchased the former Williamson High School and Middle School complex for $300,000. Commissioners approached several area Christian schools about moving into the building, eventually creating the Ambassador Christian Academy in the former middle school building in August 2014.

The county paid for all utilities that first year while the school paid one dollar a year in rent. That next year, the school signed an amended lease, requiring it pay $1,000 a month toward utilities. In July 2017, a third amendment to the lease was signed, agreeing to take over complete utility payments in the middle school building.

Travis Crum is a reporter for the Williamson Daily News. He may be reached by phone at 304-236-6497.

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