For the first time in anyone’s memory, the state of Kentucky soon will no longer officially designate Ashland as a second-class city. For that matter, area cities ranging in size from Flatwoods to South Shore are losing their state designations as third-, fourth-, fifth- and sixth-class cities.
House Bill 331 approved by the 2014 Kentucky General Assembly changes the number of classifications for Kentucky cities from six to two. Louisville and Lexington will be designated as first-class cities, while all other Kentucky cities ranging size from the smallest municipality to relatively large cities like Bowling Green, Owensboro, Covington, Newport and Ashland will be designated under the new “home rule class” of cities.
Just what the change will mean remains to be seen, but we hope it means just what the new designation says it does: That legislators in Frankfort are finally willing to give cities of all sizes true home rule by allowing cities to make decisions on taxes, alcohol sales and other issues on the local level, something the Kentucky General Assembly has never been willing to do.
However, we would be much more confident that legislators are truly interested in giving cities more power to make their own decisions if the new law had not “grandfathered” existing city ordinances regardless of the classification. That is a sure sign that at least some legislators are still unwilling to give cities true home rule.
The grandfather clause in the new law is also why Glasgow Mayor Rhonda Trautman has called the new law “a good start” but quickly adds legislators need to do more to give cities the “home rule” they desire and deserve.
The outgoing classification of cities has always confused residents. For example, residents of Louisa briefly began circulating petitions to legalize the sale of alcohol in the Lawrence County seat, but that effort was halted when petitioners learned Louisa was not large enough to hold a local option referenm to allow alcohol sales.
Like Ashland, Richmond is a second-class city and barred from enacting a restaurant tax. Richmond Mayor Jim Barnes thinks that’s unfair. The restaurant tax is paid by both residents and visitors who dine in local restaurants, and Barnes believes it would be a good, reasonably non-controversial source of much needed revenue for the city. Barnes rightfully wonders why legislators would allow a tax in some cities but not others. And why should legislators in Frankfort even care why Richmond or any other city has a restaurant tax? Enacting such a tax clearly should be a local decision, and if local residents don’t like the tax, they can vote against those who supported it at the next city election. That’s the way representative government it supposed to work.
Another inconsistency in the existing city classification is that Elizabethtown is a fourth-class city, while nearby Radcliff is a second-class city, even though Elizabethtown is the larger city. Thus, Elizabethtown has a restaurant tax, but Radcliff, which mainly serves the sprawling Fort Knox military base, is barred from enacting one.
It is because of such inconsistencies that Trautman hopes the new 379-page law will “even the playing field” by addressing and eliminating existing inequities among laws governing cities. For it to do that, future General Assemblies must do much more to prove they are serious about giving local governments more powers. After all, our political leaders in Congress say decisions on taxes, education and other issues are best made at the local level, but in Kentucky, state laws prohibit school boards, county fiscal courts and city commissions and councils from making those decisions.
Our hope is the new “home rule class” will actually give cities home rule, but we have our doubts.