Tuesday, January 24, 2012

Fiscal court waives snow bill, calls for county and city to reach agreement on future removal

By Martha Groppo
University of Kentucky School of Journalism and Telecommunications

A discussion that began with the question of snow removal has snowballed into a much larger debate about the responsibilities and privileges of fourth-class cities, whose ranks Midway recently joined.

After over an hour of discussion and some heated debate with representatives from Midway, a divided Woodford County Fiscal Court voted Tuesday night to waive January snow removal fees for Midway while Judge-Executive John Coyle and Mayor Tom Bozarth come to a firm agreement for future salting and plowing by the county at the city’s expense.
Bozarth addresses Coyle and court; Midway Magistrate Larry Craig is behind lectern.
Coyle and the magistrates cited Midway’s June change to a fourth-class city as rationale for charging the city for snow removal after 30 years of providing the service.

“This winter marks the first winter in the history of Woodford County that this county contains two fourth-class cities,” Coyle said in a statement he read to the court before opening the floor for debate. He said the county’s other fourth-class city, Versailles, pays for its snow removal, and he thinks Midway should, too: “I felt—and feel, that we need to be consistent.” For a PDF of the statement, click here.

Coyle presented three options to the court, but said he opposed the third option, to provide free snow removal for the remainder of the season. The others were to bill Midway for all 2012 snow removal or waive the January cost while an agreement is worked out. “We would not harm and have not harmed the citizens of Midway,” Coyle said.

Midway representatives at the meeting argued that the county’s Dec. 15 decision to no longer provide free snow removal for Midway was unfair and left them unable to weigh their options in a timely manner.

“I didn’t know about it until the Wednesday before the snowstorm,” Bozarth said. He referred to communication delays, but did not mention that the major delay appeared to be caused by Midway Magistrate Larry Craig missing Coyle’s email about the decision. Craig acknowledged that at the last city council meeting, when the council voted to continue paying the county’s cost for snow removal in Midway for 30 days.

“Somebody dropped the ball,” Bozarth said. “All I’m saying is notify us. ... I asked for 30 days when we can look at this and explore all of our options.”

Coyle conceded in his opening statement that the late decision was regrettable, but said his initial email to the court was met by no resistance from the magistrates, so he moved ahead.

“In hindsight, perhaps we should have had this discussion we are about to have in the fall,” Coyle said. “However, it wasn’t until winter’s approach that it truly dawned on me. I felt that as judge-executive of all Woodford County that I needed to make my position known and act quickly. … I thought I had the full support of the court. I guess I’m about to find out if, in fact, I do.”

Coyle did have the support of the court, generally, except that of Craig, who said the third option, least expensive for Midway, would be “a good compromise.”

Magistrate Duncan Gardiner broached the subject of what other aspects of the county-city relationship Midway’s change in status might affect, and called on County Attorney Alan George to explain the differences between a fourth- and a fifth- class city.

“I don’t know if the differences are great or small,” George said. It would be nice to have that discussion—which we haven’t had.”

Coyle suggested, and some magistrates agreed, that Midway had sought its status change before fully weighing other changes it could bring.

“It is my sincere belief and understanding that the sole motivating factor for the change by Midway was so that the few thousand dollars Midway it raised in alcohol sales and licenses would go to the Midway city coffers and not to of the Woodford County government,” Coyle said.

“For those who raise the budget concerns, I ask was the budget effect even discussed or rationalized by the leaders who sought reclassification? ... Or was it, as I think it was, simply about getting the alcohol money as quickly as possible without a plan in place to deal with other ramifications of acquiring a fourth-class city classification?”

Magistrate Jackie Brown said, “Y’all need to look into stuff before getting into it.”

Bozarth acknowledged, "The alcohol issue was probably the root" of the classification change, which was done by the legislature at Midway's request. Coyle noted that Midway has fewer than 3,000 people, which he thought was the minimum for fourth class, and noted that another such city's new fourth-class status is being challenged in court.

For Midway citizens, however, the issue had less to do with city classification than with late notification.
“To me, it was totally an issue of timing,” Martha Heckerman told the court. “If that had been done in public, clearly it would have been in the newspaper.”

City Council Member and Mayor Pro Tem Sharon Turner questioned what her county taxes really paid for. “I might be a resident of Midway, but I’m a citizen of Woodford County,” she said.

“We can’t do it for you,” Brown replied. “We don’t’ do it for Versailles.”

On a motion to approve Coyle’s first option, billing Midway for this month’s snow removal and calling for a formal agreement for future work, the vote was 5 to 4 against, with Coyle voting in the minority. Then the court voted 6-2 for the second option, waiving the charge. UPDATE: According to The Woodford Sun, the "no" votes came from Craig and Ken Reed, who sided with Coyle on the first vote.

UPDATE, Jan. 26: To Bozarth's assertion at the meeting that the county would have stopped snow removal in Midway even if it had remained a fifth-class city, Coyle said today that he couldn't imagine that happening.

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