Commonwealth Journal

October 20, 2013

Mayor: County seeks ‘destruction’ of Somerset

by Chris Harris
Commonwealth Journal

Somerset — “There will be no negotiation if they continue to determine that their ultimate objective is the destruction of Somerset.”

Those were Somerset Mayor Eddie Girdler’s strong words in response to a group of Pulaski County government officials associated with the recent move to merge city and county government — officials who are now concerned that Girdler’s plans for a seismic tax revenue shake-up could spell their own financial ruin.

But just because those are Girdler’s views doesn’t mean everyone on the Somerset City Council sees things the same way.

“We don’t want to profit at the expense of our neighbors,” said councilor Jim Rutherford. “We don’t need the money that bad.”

Those were the reactions of the two men following the news that Girdler is seeking to claim 60 percent of the county’s occupational tax haul come July, 2014. County officials have expressed fears to the Commonwealth Journal that the move could effectively cripple their government’s ability to provide key services to citizens of Pulaski County, with so much of the funds that they’re accustomed to relying on potentially going to the City of Somerset’s coffers instead.

It’s the latest — and perhaps weightiest — twist in what’s been an ongoing saga over the last year between the two local government entities to hammer out a deal that would fairly divvy up the occupational tax and fund the Somerset-Pulaski County EMS service, a task which has proven to be a stalemate.

Until now, with a move that may allow the city to call “check.” For Girdler, the hard line is the result of what he feels has been an inability of the county government to come to the bargaining table in good faith.

“We’re willing to negotiate with the county, but the county has virtually refused to negotiate,” said Girdler. “... It’s very plain and simple. We’ve got all these programs, and they’ve not done anything except sit back and take the money. They’ve not come up with any new ways of doing things so that we can be in a better position to meet our obligations for the future.

“They don’t realize the world has changed,” he continued. “There’s no money in Washington, no money in Frankfort. We’ve got water lines, sewer lines, natural gas lines that need to be upgraded. There’s a number of programs we have that they don’t operate, and they have no basis for understanding how the city operates.”

That willingness to negotiate is predicated, however, on the removal of county interests in the mission of the Somerset-Pulaski County United organization, which has made a push to merge the two major governments of the county, along with other municipalities within Pulaski borders. It’s a move county officials have shown support for exploring — including the fiscal court, Judge-Executive Barty Bullock, and Community Development Director Tiffany Bourne — but also one that Girdler has resisted tooth-and-nail, calling the idea of absorbing financially solvent Somerset into a larger governing entity tantamount to “destruction” of the city.

Now that county officials are saying that Girdler’s tax plan is “an attack on all Pulaski County residents,” as it was put in a written statement given to the Commonwealth Journal Friday, Girdler finds the criticism ironic.

“It doesn’t make any sense,” said Girdler. “They’re out to destroy Somerset, while at the same time complaining about what we’re doing. If they were sincere about working together (on the occupational tax issue), they’d stop this nonsense because we are not participating (in a merged government). It will never happen.”

Girdler also noted that the EMS funding agreement that previously existed was “a one-year thing” and that plans for the future need to be made now, not at the eleventh hour.

“They should have known that at some point prior to (next) July 1, we will have to negotiate those issues,” said Girdler. “We can’t wait until around May of next year to determine how much money goes to EMS. They’ve got equipment to buy, they’ve got ambulances to purchase. Those issues need to be deal with now rather than later because they’re too critical to the operation.”

Girdler said that the city council has already agreed to negotiate with the county, but that the “ball is in (the county’s) court,” and it will be “their decision” if the county chooses not to negotiate with the city.

“We both exist for the purpose of serving the citizens and need to come together and join in a good faith negotiation,” said Girdler. However, “we won’t be bound in the future by their lack of decision relative to what the future holds.”

Some on the city council don’t wish to go down the same route as the mayor. Girdler pointed out that in March of this year, the city council unanimously agreed to terminate their decade-old agreement establishing EMS funding, and also passed an ordinance agreeing to claim a larger portion of the occupational tax pot.

Though the deal-making process has gone through several more ups and downs since that point — the first time this year that Girdler suggested changing up the occupational tax structure was back in January — what the councilors agreed to is what Girdler is once again calling for publicly today.

Yet Rutherford wasn’t sold on the idea at the time — and even though he voted in favor of the ordinance last spring, he said that the idea of a city occupational tax went against his belief in limited government. However, “when it gets down to it we have to protect our citizens and we have to protect their money,” he said at the time.

As things stand now, the idea of taking the lion’s share of the county’s tax revenue out from under them is not an idea that holds any appeal for Rutherford.

“As far as I’m concerned, we will propose to rescind (the ordinance),” said Rutherford. “We don’t want our neighbors to suffer. ... We were told that we would have the chance to address it before the July 1 deadline to possibly rescind it. That was the talk going into the passing of the ordinance. I would rescind it in a heartbeat.”

Rutherford pointed to a recent financial report by the mayor that showed Somerset as being in “good to excellent” shape, and as such, “we do not need the extra revenue according to that report,” said the councilor.

When contacted for comment, councilor Jerry Burnett agreed, saying that it was a “great idea” to try and rescind the decision.

“I’m hoping we can work something out and not have to do that,” said Burnett. “I don’t want to do anything to hurt or cripple the county in any way. We’re a part of the county ... and my concern is to see it continue to grow.”