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By MARTY FINLEY email@example.com
ELIZABETHTOWN — Conflict abounded during an Elizabethtown City Council debate as candidates differed on key issues such as the restaurant tax, the economy and city classification, but all affirmed a strong love and passion for the city and its continued progress.
The forum was the last in a series of political forums sponsored or co-sponsored by The News-Enterprise and brought together the six incumbents — Tony Bishop, Marty Fulkerson, Kenny Lewis, Ron Thomas, Tim Walker and Willie Wood — with the challengers for the six seats: Larry Ashlock, Steve Atcher, Bill Bennett, Bob Hack, Bob Harris, Manfredo Quiros and Matt Wyatt.
Issues concerning the restaurant tax and city classification permeated much of the conversation as tax opponents Atcher, Bennett, Hack and Wyatt voiced their disapproval of the tax and its undue pressure on taxpayers, arguing that its effects are regressive and detrimental in hard economic times and is not in compliance with city classification systems outlined in the Kentucky Constitution.
Fulkerson and Lewis countered that they have no problem with city classification, but feel that it is outdated and in need of attention by the General Assembly. Fulkerson said he supported the idea for a study referred to in legislation presented to the General Assembly by Rep. Jimmie Lee, D-Elizabethtown, that passed the House, but stalled in the Senate, and wanted to see it completed and new guidelines implemented to update the system. Then, Fulkerson added, the council could look at the issue and reclassify accordingly if it benefits the city and its residents.
Lewis echoed the sentiment, adding that he would support a change in classification, but would rather wait on the General Assembly to act.
Wood said he was hesitant to re-classify because of the possible implications of mandates that could be levied on the city by the state, including changes in alcohol laws.
But Wyatt argued that reclassifying is the “right thing to do” and that an argument of mandates or changes in laws concerning alcohol was just “scare tactics.”
In conjunction with the city classification system, the candidates addressed the tourism bureau’s control of restaurant tax revenue and the bureau’s relationship with the city.
Tony Bishop, backed by the rest of the incumbents, said the tourism bureau forged a good relationship with the council and shares its financial reports, budgets and plans with the council before acting on any item. Fulkerson argued that the money garnered from the tax takes pressure off the general fund so other projects can be administered by the city, while the bureau can address the Historic State Theater and Field of Dreams.
Most candidates expressed support for a Field of Dreams; however, those against the tax called for a smaller project funded by the city rather than the current project.
Atcher said he supported tourism and its place in the city, but was not comfortable with an unelected body controlling the funding, and said that if the relationship between the two organizations deteriorated, the bureau could use the money as it wishes without approval from the city council because it is not legally bound to receive approval for projects.
The incumbents acknowledged the city cannot bind the bureau to seek approval, but Walker said the bureau’s board had been open about everything and that measures could be taken to improve the situations if relationships soured, such as the mayor appointing new board members or the council rescinding the tax altogether.
In addition to the tax, the economy was addressed in detail, with candidates pointing out measures they would take to keep the city functioning efficiently.
Thomas said he lobbied for the occupational tax raise to help fund drainage projects throughout the city, adding that the council always researched topics thoroughly before acting.
Others, like Ashlock, pointed to their experience running businesses as examples of being able to manage budgets and cut back when needed.
Nonessential services were at the top of the list for most, though, as the incumbents argued that the council would need to reduce or cut certain services first if cuts were necessary in the future.
But Quiros said the council should be cost effective rather than cost cutters. Instead of simply cutting services, he said the council should look for ways to complete services cheaper.
Hack said he would rather see departments combined and some projects, such as the number of streetlights in the city, scaled back to save money.
Others supported lower taxes, which they felt could alleviate pressure off families.
Downtown revitalization correlated with the economic debate, and Bennett, along with others, said development of the southern end of the city near Interstate 65 could result in more traffic flow through the city and breathe new life into downtown, while others touted BRAC as being an asset to downtown revitalization. Committees in accordance with BRAC are working on a report that addresses needs for the downtown area and the council plans to explore that plan thoroughly.
“It’s our downtown and our responsibility,” Walker said.
Harris said he also would like to see technology implemented in a greater capacity and wireless capabilities offered downtown to modernize it, while Quiros said the city should look to other cities with viable downtowns, such as Bardstown, as “benchmarks” and follow their lead.
Though the candidates disagreed on several aspects, all agreed that they love the city and want to see it prosper.
Harris, an Arkansas native, said he didn’t expect to be in the city long when he first arrived 30 years ago, but the city changed his mind
And Wyatt said that Money Magazine’s opinion mattered little to him as he felt the city was the best place for people to live — one point that led to no disagreement.
Marty Finley can be reached at (270) 505-1762.