HINDMAN, Ky. (AP) — Coal companies controlled by West Virginia Gov. Jim Justice's family owe nearly $3 million in delinquent Kentucky property taxes, money that local governments desperately need to avoid laying off teachers.

The Lexington Herald-Leader cited records Monday saying the Kentucky Fuel Corporation is behind nearly $2 million on taxes on real estate, mining equipment and coal reserves in Knott County alone. Federal mining records say James and Jill Justice became controllers of Kentucky Fuel in April, but the taxes have been overdue since their billionaire father was in charge.

James Justice says the assessments on the family's coal properties are too high, arguing that taxes should decline with profitability as the coal industry declines. He said he's analyzing the debts to figure out the "right" number to offer the affected counties in negotiated settlements.

Assistant Knott County Attorney Randy G. Slone said "Kentucky Fuel's standard business practice" is to try to reduce debts by dragging its feet on paying bills. Other coal companies are delinquent on their taxes as well, but he said they're the "No. 1 problem by far."

More than $1 million of the unpaid Knott County taxes would go to schools, district Finance Officer Greg Conn said, enough to pay a deficit that will otherwise force teacher layoffs.

Production is plummeting and miners are being laid off across the coal industry, and the Justice family's coal operations haven't escaped the beating. Federal records show the family controlled 154 coal mines or facilities in several states as of 2016, but now 39 of them are listed as abandoned, non-producing or idle by the U.S. Mine Safety and Health Administration.

Still, Slone says the county shouldn't be forced to go to court to collect taxes from companies controlled by the family of Justice, who was elected governor as a Democrat in 2016 and switched his registration to the Republican Party last year.

Counties must wait at least two years to sue companies for unpaid taxes, and Knott County's latest lawsuit against Kentucky Fuel, for unpaid taxes from 2015, is still pending.

Kentucky Fuel has denied the county's claim and asked the court to award the county nothing.


Information from: Lexington Herald-Leader, http://www.kentucky.com