By Bill Samuels
Cities and counties small and large across Kentucky have big dreams for their communities — ideas that are transformative and can have lasting impact for generations.
Bardstown wants to build a YMCA to help keep its citizens healthy. Eastern Kentucky communities dream of transforming the region into a destination attracting hunters, anglers, campers and adventure tourists. Louisville hopes to build a 100-mile hiking and biking path across the city — the type of amenity that attracts young people and entrepreneurs who start businesses and grow the state’s economy.
But those same cities and counties have been struggling for years to pay for basic needs, from paving roads to picking up trash to policing the streets — and with the rising costs of pensions, local government budgets are experiencing an even tighter financial squeeze. Few communities have much, if anything, left over to invest in capital improvements, such as modern firehouses, improved park or pool facilities, or new roads and sidewalks.
Kentucky’s Constitution limits revenue options for cities and counties, and when fixed costs escalate, our local communities are left with few options to provide the outstanding services and amenities that citizens expect and deserve.
But legislation being considered during this year’s General Assembly could change that in a significant way. Local Investments for Transformation (LIFT) is a simple but powerful tool for cities and counties that want to invest in their future through the use of a temporary Local Option sales tax. It gives the decision-making power to the people.
For Boyle County a local option sales tax of 1% would yield at least $1,490,733 yearly, according to state data. Imagine what that money, if invested in specific projects important to your community, could mean to your city or county.
How does it work? The Local Option allows citizens to fund specific hometown capital projects with an additional 1 percent sales tax. The people vote “yes” or “no” on the projects and the tax. If approved, that additional 1 percent stays at home in a separate, restricted fund. Also, it does not go to Frankfort and cannot go into your local government’s general fund — and it would not be collected on food, medicine, utilities or automobiles. Most importantly, the 1 percent would go away when the projects are completed. And, if people vote no, there is no tax and no project.
This is a proven tool that works well in other places. In fact, 37 states already allow for this type of local decision making. Kentuckians should have the same right, but WE MUST FIRST AMEND the Kentucky Constitution. State Senate and House members must vote to put the question of the local option on a statewide referendum. We are calling on the General Assembly to act this session so Kentuckians can vote on whether to amend the constitution in November 2014.
If that constitutional amendment is approved, cities and counties could then decide to bring a local referendum to their voters to fund projects in their communities. The local option is direct democracy in action. We all know that the government closest to the people is the best government, and this is citizen-driven, local decision-making at its best.
The Local Option has gained significant momentum and support from Governor Steve Beshear, local elected and civic leaders in small towns, large cities, and rural communities. It has the support of county judges, mayors, business executives and economic development groups and it’s been endorsed by regional and statewide groups ranging from the Kentucky Chamber of Commerce and several local Chambers to the Kentucky League of Cities and the Kentucky Association of Counties.
Please call your legislators in Frankfort (1-800-372-7181) and tell them that Kentuckians deserve the right to control their own future, and we need the Local Option to make it happen.
Bill Samuels is a lifelong Kentuckian and Chairman, Emeritus at Maker’s Mark.