By Beth Musgrave
FRANKFORT — Agriculture Commissioner James Comer announced Wednesday that he was shutting down a fuel-testing laboratory that cost $3.1 million to build because it was a waste of taxpayer money.
The Department of Agriculture will send its fuel samples to a private company in Texas for testing. By shutting down the lab and outsourcing the testing, the state could save upwards of $600,000 a year, agriculture officials said Wednesday.
Former Agriculture Commissioner Richie Farmer and his staff had told the legislature in 2008 that the state could generate money by investing approximately $3.1 million in a fuel-testing lab and make money by testing fuel from surrounding states. The lab alsocould test pesticides, agriculture officials said at the time. Comer, a former state representative, said Farmer’s staff had repeatedly told the legislature that they had contracts with surrounding states and that the lab was profitable.
When Comer took over the department from Farmer in 2012, he learned that those contracts never existed.
“On Day One, I learned there were no contracts with surrounding states,” Comer said. “The pesticide lab wasn’t even being used. In fact, all of the pesticides that we tested in the department, we were sending out to a private lab.”
Comer also found a backlog of gas samples that needed to be tested. It cost the state roughly $900,000 to run the laboratory. Comer’s staff has been able to reduce expenses to about $500,000 a year, in part by reducing staff. But annual rent on the building that houses the fuel testing lab is about $199,000. Agriculture officials plan to do away with the rent on either the lab or another building to save additional money. The contract with the private lab will cost roughly $300,000 a year, agriculture officials said Wednesday.
The Department of Agriculture is responsible for ensuring the quality of gas sold in Kentucky. It also monitors gas pumps to make sure consumers get a full gallon of gas. The switch to a private contractor will not harm Kentucky consumers, Comer said Wednesday.
Comer appointed a fuel lab task force after he took over to determine whether the fuel lab could ever be profitable. The task force ultimately decided that there was no way for the lab to turn a profit and not be a continuing drain on taxpayers, Comer said Wednesday.
Comer said ag officials are talking to University of Kentucky officials to determine whether the university would take over testing in future years.
The shuttering of the fuel testing lab is just the latest fallout from Farmer’s eight-year tenure as agriculture commissioner. Comer asked state Auditor Adam Edelen to conduct an audit shortly after taking over from Farmer. Edelen found widespread problems at the department, including wasteful and questionable spending and Farmer’s use of state employees to run personal errands. The Executive Branch Ethics Commission recently charged Farmer with 42 ethics violations, most of which stemmed from Edelen’s audit.
Bruce Harper, who served under Farmer but was kept by Comer, was also charged by the Executive Branch Ethics Commission. Harper was placed on administrative leave after the ethics commission charges were released last month. Comer said Wednesday that Harper has been asked to resign or face termination.