Glasgow Daily Times, Glasgow, KY

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April 29, 2014

New designations for Kentucky cities

GLASGOW — Why would lawmakers pass a 379-page bill which seems at first glance to do very little? Because, said Glasgow Mayor Rhonda Trautman, it represents a start on a long list of problems which plague Kentucky cities.

“This is a good start and hopefully some other issues can be addressed that will level the playing field for cities in Kentucky,” Trautman said.

House Bill 331, sponsored by Rep. Steve Riggs, D-Louisville, and co-sponsored by Rep. Rita Smart, D-Richmond, and Rep. Kevin Sinnette, D-Ashland, changes the way Kentucky cities are classified, reducing from six to two the number of classifications.

Kentucky’s 1891 constitution set up six classes of cities based on population and with various powers. Over time, legislation restricted some forms of governance, taxation and local option alcohol laws to certain sizes and classifications of cities.

That prompted many cities to seek reclassification when they sought to enact a tax that wasn’t available to cities of their class and size, often a restaurant tax. In 1994, the General Assembly passed an amendment repealing the 1891 city classification system and authorizing lawmakers to establish a new city classification system.

But the General Assembly never got around to devising a new system. Each year, some lawmakers would sponsor bills to reclassify a city in his or her district, moving the city into a class usually reserved for larger populations.

HB 331 is the first step in creating a new set of laws governing cities’ authority and powers. It creates just two classes of cities. Louisville and Lexington, both of which have merged urban county governments, are first-class cities. All others now fall under the home-rule class and operate under either the mayor-council or the city manager-commission form of government.

But the bill “to a large extent tried to hold the status quo,” according to J.D. Chaney, chief governmental affairs officer for the Kentucky League of Cities. It “grandfathers” existing city ordinances regardless of city classification.

The goal was two-fold: enacting structural reform without getting bogged down in controversial matters like taxes or alcohol laws while at the same time trying to do no harm to any city.

Trautman and Richmond Mayor Jim Barnes supported the bill, but see it as just a first step. Both hope lawmakers will now begin to address some of what the two mayors see as inequities among cities.

For instance, Trautman said, Glasgow as a third-class city can’t schedule police officers on a 10-hour shift, something that was barred by a single statute passed years ago. But other cities of like size, but of a different class, can use such shifts to double up police patrols at key times while not requiring the expense of additional hires.

Mayors of larger cities may also handle discipline problems in the police and fire departments. But in third class cities like Glasgow, the mayor must take such issues before the city council.

Richmond is a second-class city and therefore can’t enact a restaurant tax, a tax Barnes thinks is fairer than most because it is paid by transients as well as by city residents. Barnes said Richmond has experienced significant growth, but its classification hasn’t changed and it restricts Richmond’s revenue sources.

“As we grow, our expenses grow, but our revenues aren’t keeping up,” Barnes said. But there are similar size cities that are classified differently and some have a restaurant tax.

For example, Elizabethtown and Radcliff in Hardin County aren’t much different in size, but Elizabethtown, the larger of the two, was designated a fourth-class city while Radcliff is a second-class city. Trautman said fourth class “is the sweet spot. You’ll see third-class and fifth-class cities trying to become fourth-class cities.” Part of the reason is the restaurant tax.

Second class Radcliff, like Richmond, can’t enact a restaurant tax, but the larger Elizabethtown can and did. The tax helps pay for a multi-million dollar sports complex in Elizabethtown and will be grandfathered under HB 331.

Chaney said that situation illustrates both the problems of the old system and what lawmakers want to change.

“The law recognizes that local leaders who are closest to their communities can make the best decisions for those communities,” Chaney said.

The other issues dealing with taxes, alcohol and labor relations can be addressed in future sessions, Chaney said. Trying to include them under HB 331 would almost certainly have doomed the bill.

HB 331 allows voters to select their form of government, to eliminate primary elections if the election is non-partisan and to enact occupational license fees. Cities with populations of 1,000 or more may apply the tax as a percentage of a worker’s gross earnings while those with populations of less than 1,000 may enact a flat, annual fee.

The measure retains a population requirement of 3,000 for local option alcohol votes.

RONNIE ELLIS writes for CNHI News Service and is based in Frankfort. Reach him at Follow CNHI News Service stories on Twitter at

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