by Jeff Neal
Pulaski County officials looked toward a proposed “unified” city-county government as a way to keep the City of Somerset from grabbing the lion’s share of occupational tax money.
In hitching their wagon to that premise, however, they might have sped up the inevitable.
Somerset Mayor Eddie Girdler cited the county’s willingness to explore a “unified” government as the reason why the city is moving toward taking over 60 percent of the county’s occupational tax money beginning in the summer of 2014.
County officials are not buying it.
“The mayor is using the united government study as an excuse,” said Community Development Director Tiffany Bourne. “The fact is, he was going to (take the occupational tax money) regardless. I don’t think this is about the united government issue at all.”
Bourne admitted that when the threat of the city taking the bulk of the tax money came up earlier this year during a high-profile squabble over EMS funding, “legislators” suggested that the only remedy might be a move toward a city-county government.
“There’s no legal recourse and we don’t want to sit on our hands and do nothing,” Bourne said.
Pulaski Fiscal Court agreed to partially fund a study on a “unified” government through a community group called Somerset-Pulaski County United. Somerset City Council, on the other hand, gave a responding “no” when asked to participate.
“Just because we went along with the study, it doesn’t mean we support a unified government,” said Pulaski County magistrate Glenn Maxey. “We don’t know what the study says yet. If nothing else, maybe some aspects of the study will help us improve things in Pulaski County.”
Pulaski County magistrate Mike Strunk said he thought the EMS agreement that was pounded out at the eleventh hour earlier this year was a positive sign toward a renewed relationship between the city and the county.
“I thought maybe we were moving in the right direction, but I think (Girdler) was setting us up for this,” Strunk said. “He hung the occupational tax over our heads then, too. This is what he intended to do all the time.”
Pulaski County Treasurer Joan Isaacs said if the City of Somerset takes the 60 percent — which would increase its occupational haul from $1.4 million to over $7 million — the county would be “crippled.”
“You can’t lose $7 million out of your budget,” Isaacs said. “When you lose that kind of money, you have to make cuts across the board. Huge cuts.”
What does that mean to Pulaski County residents? According to county officials: Reduced services and higher taxes.
“There are 28 counties in the state that have an ambulance tax,” Isaacs said. “We’ve been able to fund EMS through occupational tax.”
Now that the county has agreed to pay the city $1 million a year for EMS, an ambulance tax is a real possibility, if the city takes the additional $7 million from the till.
“How else could we pay the city for EMS?” Maxey said. ”If the mayor does this, it will mean raising taxes for everyone — including residents of the city.”
The occupational tax shift could certainly result in a higher property tax for Pulaski County citizens as well. Right now, Pulaski’s property tax rates are the lowest in the region at 5.1 percent. Compare that to Wayne (12.4 percent), Laurel (6.2 percent), Russell (6.7 percent), McCreary (9.5 percent) and Fayette (8 percent) and it appears Pulaski residents have had it pretty well.
“What else can we do if the city takes away 30 percent of our budget?” Maxey said.
If the county’s share of occupational tax money slides to just $4 million, the effects on services would also be far-reaching.
In 2013, the occupational tax money was divided as follows:
• $1.7 million for the road department.
• $509,000 for the Pulaski Detention Center.
• $1.1 million for industrial development.
• $1.2 million for the 911 Center.
• $1.2 million for EMS.
• $1.4 million to the City of Somerset.
• $113,000 to the City of Ferguson.
• $81,000 to the City of Burnside.
• $81,000 to the City of Science Hill.
• $41,000 to the City of Eubank.
“The other cities in Pulaski County depend on their cut of the occupational tax money,” said Strunk. “(Girdler) told me the other cities are on their own as far as he was concerned. He said he wasn’t sharing anything with them.”
“Ferguson is in my district and (Ferguson Mayor Allen Dobbs) told me they could not make it without their occupational tax money,” Maxey added.
Pulaski also has a myriad of roads to maintain. It’s unclear how much would, or could, be trimmed from the road department’s occupational-tax funded $1.7 million budget.
“We have the most roads of anyone in the state ... but we have some of the best roads in the state,” said Isaacs. “All of that is a result of occupational tax money. If that money goes, what do we do?”
Girdler claims the county has refused to negotiate the issue in good faith.
County officials say that just isn’t the case.
“We’ve tried to talk to him, but he has made it clear that it’s his way or nothing else,” said Pulaski County magistrate Jason Turpen. “He’s made it pretty clear that he isn’t willing to try to find a solution that would be good for all Pulaski County citizens.
“We don’t want to hurt anyone in the city — we represent the entire county, including people who live in the City of Somerset,” Turpen added.
“We’ve met with (Girdler) four or five times and nothing is ever accomplished,” Strunk said. “It’s his way or no way at all.
“And I don’t hang any of this on the city councilors,” Strunk added. “This is all on the mayor.”
Pulaski County Judge-executive Barty Bullock is dealing with a “serious illness” that has him hospitalized and was unavailable for comment. But Maxey said Bullock is up to speed.
Two city councilors, Jim Rutherford and Jerry Burnett, told the Commonwealth Journal they are in favor of rescinding the ordinance that would allow Somerset to take the additional tax money from the county.
At this stage of the game, that may be county government’s best hope for averting disaster.
“If the city goes through with this, it will kill Pulaski County,” Maxey said. “It’s as simple as that.”