Commonwealth Journal

February 6, 2013

Burnside nixes annexation plan & houseboat tax

by Chris Harris
Commonwealth Journal

Burnside —  

Citizens packed the Burnside Fire Department truck bay for the February meeting of the Burnside City Council — and most of them weren’t even from Burnside.
A crowd of nearly 100 forced the council to move from their usual chambers to the much larger space next door, on hand to voice displeasure about a couple of key issues weighing on local minds: a proposed annexation and a rumored houseboat tax. 
Fortunately for the council, they were able to please those present by giving them what they wanted: plenty of “nays” all around.
The council voted not to annex an area north of Pitman Creek, east of Lake Cumberland and west of U.S. 27, essentially located behind the Stonebrook Pavilion-area businesses. The area is home to about 150 homes and businesses that would help pad the Burnside tax base had the city successfully brought it into the fold.
Had it tried, though, Burnside might have found itself with a legal battle on its hands. Lee Weddle was one of several individuals from the proposed annexation area who was specifically designated to speak to the council against the plan. 
“We as a neighborhood have no interest in being annexed,” Weddle told the council, which was only the second for November electees Susi Lawson and Bill Leslie. 
“If you do vote ‘yes’,” added Weddle during the meeting, “we are prepared to fight you tooth and toenail on this.”
Additional city taxes that those residents don’t currently pay, being in the county, were one of the primary points of contention.
“If you do a cost-benefit analysis on this, it looks like we’re bearing all the cost and no benefit,” said Weddle. “We have the services that are provided by the county right now, and you’re asking us to pay a few hundred dollars more for the same services at best. We’re having a hard time with the logic behind that.”
Weddle said a petition was drafted and taken around the neighborhood to see who was for the annexation and who wasn’t; only one resident was found who was in favor.
Jones lobbied his city’s case by suggesting better police and fire protection could lead to lower insurance premiums, but citizens disputed that, claiming that they actually have better numbers now; even Jones noted that some would pay more, some less, and for some, the difference would be “a wash.”
Jones also used the threat of the larger city Somerset to the north absorbing the rest of the county as a selling point, with the idea that Somerset’s potentially taking a substantial chunk of the county’s occupational tax revenue, as had suggested as a possibility earlier this year, could drain some of the resources those citizens are currently receiving. 
Even though Somerset Mayor Eddie Girdler said in January that his city wasn’t ready to move in that direction — and the city and county appear to have reached an agreement regarding the EMS funding shortfall Somerset faces that would mitigate that danger, a fact Jones could not have known at the time of the meeting — Jones still made it seem as though he believed that such an event was on the horizon.
“Somerset is in the process of taking the occupational tax from the county, from which the City of Burnside receives, if I’m not mistaken, a little over $80,000 a year,” said Jones. “My understanding is, from our magistrate, that Somerset is not concerned about Burnside or Ferguson, or anybody out in the county. They’re going to withhold the contributions that the county judge has been giving to the ambulance service, to the fire departments. ... You have (county services) right now, but when the City of Somerset takes that, you’re not going to have anything.”
Jones added later in the meeting that “there’s nothing in this world that Somerset would love better than to be on Lake Cumberland, and the way they get there is by taking Burnside over, and they can do that because we’re a fifth-class city.”
The public uproar worked, however; the council took a vote upon the second reading of Ordinance 110.7 Monday and unanimously voted against the annexation, drawing hearty applause from the crowd.
Councilor Dwayne Sellers said that he actually felt that the annexation was for the best and that the area should be part of Burnside. The lack of public support, however, is what caused him to vote against it.
“A hostile annexation, I don’t feel, would be best for Burnside,” said Sellers.
The other complaint came from houseboat owners who had heard that the city was considering imposing a tax on the lake-populating vessels that are kept here. J.D. Hamilton, owner of Lee’s Ford Marina, which is within Burnside, spoke before the council against the idea of voting in such a tax.
Carrying a petition with 67 names on it, Hamilton mentioned that the Pulaski County School Board and the county’s library board had already put in place houseboat taxes that are “having a detrimental impact on our economy” — he said that the petitioners would lobby those entities to reconsider their taxes as well — and that nearby lakes had seen their traffic rise while Lake Cumberland’s has dropped thanks to factors including the lowering of Lake Cumberland to ease pressure on ailing Wolf Creek Dam. The lowered lake over the last few years has resulted in an “economic disaster” situation for the Lake Cumberland economy, Hamilton noted, and the city should encourage visitors and boaters rather than place additional financial burdens on them.
“I know that you guys are pro-growth,” said Hamilton to the council. “ ... We can get this thing to recover in a year or two if we work together and implement pro-growth strategies. We would like to make it clear to the people who are trying to decide what to do with their votes that Burnside is pro-boater, that we do want to remain the ‘Houseboat Capital of the World’ and we’d like to recommit to the economic security plan (that was previously conceived by local governments). I’m asking you guys to make it clear to the people who are considering boating on Lake Cumberland or in Burnside that we’re not going to pass a tax ... I know that everyone here would very much appreciate that.”
The solution to this problem proved simpler than with the annexation, however, as the council pointed out that they had no plans to tax houseboats and that any talk of such a tax amounted to a “rumor.” The issue had been discussed in recent work sessions and last month’s city council meeting, but only in theory, and largely relating to whether or not such a tax would be mandated by state law (Jones has since ascertained that it would not be required). Moreover, the city councilor who had suggested the city look into such a tax — Frank DeNiro — is no longer part of city government, having been voted out during the November election, pointed out Sellers.
Nevertheless, just to help boat owners feel better about the situation, the council did hold a quick vote just to assert that Burnside is not considering a tax on houseboats at this time. This vote too unanimously passed. Additionally, councilor Lula Jean Burton asked anyone who does have ideas on how to stimulate growth in the area to contact a member of the council or City Hall to share that feedback.