By Ronnie Ellis
CNHI News Service
FRANKFORT— Agri-culture Commissioner James Comer announced Thursday Deputy Commissioner Larry Cox will “re-enter retirement” effective June 15 after shutting down the department’s internal fuel testing laboratory.
Cox was the longtime state director for Republican Sen. Mitch McConnell before retiring after 25 years on McConnell’s staff and later working with the campaign of 2011 Republican candidate for attorney general Todd P’Pool, who lost to incumbent Democrat Jack Conway.
He joined the Agriculture Department last August as director of the Office of Consumer and Environmental Protection and Deputy Commissioner at a salary of $80,000.
At the time, Comer spokeswoman Holly Harris VonLuehrte said Cox’s primary role would be to advise Comer about the shutdown of the fuel lab, a multimillion dollar project sought by previous Commissioner of Agriculture Richie Farmer.
A 2012 department-wide review by state Auditor Adam Edelen — requested by Comer when he took office in January 2012 — indicated the lab was expensive and failed to generate revenues promised by Farmer.
Comer, who is traveling out of state, said in a press release sent out Thursday the lab equipment will be auctioned off after efforts to transfer the equipment and functions to the University of Kentucky proved impractical.
“This was the most cost-effective path for the taxpayers,” Comer said in the statement. “The shutdown of the fuel lab was a laborious and complex task, and I am grateful to the leadership of Larry Cox in guiding this project to conclusion.”
The $3.1 million worth of lab equipment will be auctioned by the Kentucky Finance and Administrative Cabinet’s surplus property division. Comer estimates operating the fuel lab cost about $900,000 a year, but it only costs the state about $330,000 a year to contract with a private laboratory.
The department is responsible for testing and monitoring motor fuels, and for years contracted with private labs to perform the tests. But Farmer convinced the legislature an internal lab could generate revenues by testing fuels for other states. However, those out-of-state contracts and revenues never materialized.
Cox was unavailable for comment Thursday afternoon, according to VonLuehrte.
VonLuehrte said Cox is not departing because of disagreements with Agriculture Department staff.
“It’s just not that dramatic,” she said.
VonLuehrte said Cox never intended to stay past the shutdown of the fuel lab and pointed to published articles at the time of his hiring which indicated Cox would hold the position “for a few months” and to resolve the high costs of operating the lab.
“Actually, he only planned to stay through the (2013) General Assembly, but Commissioner Comer asked him to stay on longer to finish up the fuel lab project,” she said.
In the press release, Comer said he “knew we only had him temporarily” when Cox was hired, “but he achieved every goal I set out for him and he leaves this office in great condition.”
Cox will be succeeded as Consumer and Environmental Protection director by Benson Bell, currently a division director in the department and the brother of state Rep. Johnny Bell, D-Glasgow. Comer said he has no immediate plans to fill the position of Deputy Commissioner.
VonLuehrte said the department hopes the sale of the lab equipment generates “several hundred thousand dollars.”
Ronnie Ellis writes for CNHI News Service and is based in Frankfort. Reach him at email@example.com. Follow CNHI News Service stories on Twitter at www.twitter.com/