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Nov. 27 editorial: Time for a second opinion

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THE ISSUE: Elizabethtown city classification OUR VIEW: It's past time for state action

By Chris Ordway

Following the recent failed motion to reclassify Elizabethtown as a second class city, the issue is again making headlines. Councilman Steve Atcher’s motion, seconded by Councilman Ron Thomas, was struck down by the city council by a 4-2 vote. The time for clearing and cleaning up discrepancy and disagreement regarding classification is long overdue.

Basically, the same two contrasting points of view exist regarding classification. The views are either that it’s an issue of discretion legally afforded the city or it’s an issue of ethical obligation on the city’s part.

In 1994 voters passed a constitutional amendment repealing section 156, the long-standing portion of the constitution pertaining to classification population guidelines. With that amendment, a new section 156(a) and (b) empowered the General Assembly to adopt new guidelines by which cities are to be classified. However, lawmakers, as they too often are guilty, haven’t taken the necessary steps to either establish new guidelines or to readopt the old ones. For this reason, those among the discretionary decision camp take the position that the city is under no legal obligation to request reclassification.

In contrast, those in the ethical issue camp are voicing the position that the city should “do the right thing,” petition the state to reclassify the city to second class because of its current population estimate, and bring Elizabethtown into alignment with repealed section 156 of the constitution since no other legislation has been enacted by state lawmakers.

We have to ask, where have these moral high-grounders been for so long?

According to Mayor David Willmoth, Elizabethtown has had its fourth class city designation for more than 90 years now. It was way back in 1960 when Elizabethtown’s population exceeded the 8,000 mark outlined in section 156. If you are among the “do the right thing” crowd, you are more than a little late in bringing that argument to the table.

Let’s cut through the smoke and mirrors and call this push for reclassification for what it really is. The reclassification crowd view changing Elizabethtown to a second class city as their solution to bring about a repeal of the city’s restaurant tax. That isn’t likely to happen, though. Even if the city reclassifies, only through a majority vote by the council will the prepared food tax sunset.

And speaking of taxes, reclassification of Elizabethtown from a fourth to a second class city will bring with it more costs for the city. City Attorney D. Dee Shaw delivered that news in her report to council on the issue quite some time ago. Those increased costs will have to either be covered through increased tax dollars, or by reducing existing services.

Councilman Larry Ashlock filed a formal request with the Kentucky Attorney General’s office seeking clarification as to the viability of section 156. Councilman Atcher has stated he intends to file his own letter asking the AG to confirm that the section still stands as the legal guideline.

Any opinion the AG might offer will be helpful, but it won’t bind the city council to mandated action. Nor will finality on this issue come about with an unlikely future vote by the council to reclassify to second class, or through simple continuation of Elizabethtown’s fourth class status quo.

Only with a decisive act by the General Assembly to clarify the state’s laissez faire approach will city classification become the unquestionably defined, mandated and automatic system it should be.

— This editorial represents a consensus of The News-Enterprise editorial board.