BeShear's legacy:  An unpopular tax that saved the county

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AN ORDINANCE RELATING TO LICENSE FEES UPON ALL PERSONS WHO ARE ENGAGED OR EMPLOYED IN ANY TRADE, OCCUPATION OR PROFESSION WITHIN THE COUNTY OF PULASKI, FOR THE HEALTH, EDUCATION, SAFETY, WELFARE AND CONVENIENCE OF THE INHABITANTS OF PULASKI COUNTY, KENTUCKY.

Above is the lead to Ordinance 220.9, enacted by Pulaski Fiscal Court 23 years ago, on March 16, 1996, imposing a 1 percent payroll tax upon working citizens and businesses in Pulaski County. Resulting tax money transformed Pulaski County from a poverty-stricken Appalachian area to one of the most financially sound counties in Kentucky.

The Daddy -- the man who came up with the idea to impose the tax -- was then-Judge-Executive Darrell BeShears. One day in his office, back in the mid-1980s, BeShears asked a veteran reporter for the Commonwealth Journal: "What do you think will happen if I try to get a 1 percent payroll tax?"

"They'll throw your butt out of this courthouse," the reporter reacted.

BeShears didn't listen. He felt he had to do something. There was little money for road work. Matter of fact, most county-maintained roads had creek gravel surfaces. Road maintenance usually shut down in wintertime, and freezing and thawing could mire a car in the mud. Pulaski Fiscal Court was often called the "Gravel Council." Magistrates knew a fresh application of gravel in front of a rural home meant votes. Their main focus often was graveling county roads. The county used creek gravel until some environmental rule made them stop digging gravel out of creek beds.

Volunteer fire departments, shortly before established, struggled to get necessary equipment. An ambulance service, not too long before evolved from funeral home operations, barely survived. A regional ambulance service was tried with little success.

"It may get me beat, but I'm going to do it," BeShears declared. He proposed his plan to Fiscal Court. The magistrates knew the county was in dire financial straits. The occupational tax was brought to a vote. Only Magistrate Jim Slaughter voted no. Slaughter said he was really for the tax; he was aware there were enough votes to approve it. He said he voted no because he felt at the time his constituents didn't want any more taxes.

BeShears used his Nancy roots and nohow to get the job done. He went to county fire department personnel and told them " ... if you'll support a payroll tax, I'll see you get proper equipment and uniforms. Volunteer fire departments in the county succeeded one- and two-room schoolhouses as politically active community centers. When Superintendent Charles Hall engineered merger of the small county schools, fire departments became community nerve centers.

The Commonwealth Journal editorially supported the payroll tax. During its discussion and passage, only one letter to the editor opposed the tax. People wanted progress. The didn't mind to pay the price.

BeShears lost the next election to Louie Floyd. Political observers agreed engendering the payroll tax did not cost him the election. It was changing everybody's address done by Pulaski 9-1-1 Center. BeShears didn't do it, but he took the blame because, as county judge, he signed the letter informing residents their address was changing. A mental picture of the event was an angry woman tearing her address-change letter into pieces and tossing it beside her mailbox.

BeShears won again after Floyd and served as county judge until losing in the May 2006 Republican primary in a three-man race involving Barty Bullock and Bert Minton. BeShears had served 16 years as county judge-executive. During his last years in office, BeShears and Fiscal Court paved about every road in the county system.

"I would really love to serve another term as county judge," BeShears said afterwards. "I left some things unfinished." He continued to talk about it but he never again was a candidate. Since BeShears left office, Somerset has claimed a share of the occupational tax.

Looking back at benefits from the payroll tax, there are those who say Darrell BeShears had the courage to do Pulaski County its greatest favor. A good and comfortable public speaker, BeShears had a rural accent that belied his political acumen. He was "one of us." He knew how to get the job done. You can find people who contend BeShears was the best county judge in Pulaski County's history.

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