Days after deadly tornadoes ravaged parts of western Kentucky, and less than a month before legislators return to Frankfort for the 2022 Regular Session, the important role of cities was in the spotlight during the Kentucky Educational Television (KET) program Kentucky Tonight.
Before Friday’s devastating storm, host Renee Shaw intended to focus on topics impacting cities. However, Monday night’s program took on a new meaning to those seeing first-hand the vital role municipal governments play when disaster strikes. “We haven’t seen anything like this before, what you see in Mayfield, with a complete wipeout of their electric utilities, and their water utilities, and all of that municipal infrastructure,” said KLC Executive Director/CEO J.D. Chaney. “You think of what cities and counties exist for, and that is to provide that emergency response. Well, those that are typically equipped to provide that emergency response have been crippled.”
Chaney, KLC President and Versailles Mayor Brian Traugott, and Executive Board Member and Morehead Mayor Laura White-Brown described how cities are helping communities impacted by the tornadoes. They also discussed how the disaster highlights the critical role of city governments and legislative efforts for the 2022 Regular Session.
“It’s absolutely heart-wrenching. It’s unimaginable to see those images,” said Traugott. “To imagine what that helpless feeling would be as a local official trying to comfort, trying to provide those essential services, and you have your hands tied.”
Mayors across the commonwealth have reached out to those impacted. KLC is working with members to connect cities offering assistance to those reeling from the unprecedented disaster. “J.D. and I have been talking all weekend about how we can get emergency vehicles there,” commented White-Brown. “That is the focus in the eastern part of the state right now.”
“I’ve talked to probably 100 city mayors throughout this state who want to deliver cruisers and help with those municipal infrastructure and personnel-type issues,” explained Chaney.
KLC is organizing efforts, including delivering a temporary city hall to Mayfield. “That’s the role of the League,” said Chaney, “to come in and help them set up. We’re in the process of doing that, and hopefully, by the end of this week, they’ll have a temporary city hall, so they have a base of operations.”
He commented on Mayfield Mayor Kathy O’Nan’s job leading her city through the most trying of circumstances. “They are lucky to have Mayor O’Nan at the helm,” he said. “She knows everyone in that community. Even though you plan for emergency training, and you can get that, she knew by way of her heart what to do. She got her chiefs assembled, they have a great staff there, a very supportive council, and she’s been able to pull them together.” Mayor O’Nan serves on the KLC Board of Directors.
In addition to the recovery effort, Shaw touched on the 2022 Regular Session of the General Assembly and cities’ current and future needs. “If this last year has shown us anything,” said White-Brown, “it’s the importance of having these plans in place of looking at tax reform on many different levels and how that benefits us on a long-term scale. I think that so often we’re looking at the right now, but these key pieces play into what the future looks like for cities and counties as well.”
The KLC Board of Directors voted to support a constitutional amendment that would allow the legislature to comprehensively discuss ways to reform local government tax policies. A restriction section of the constitution, Section 181, only permits the General Assembly to delegate a small number of revenue options to local governments, including property, occupational, and a few fees and license taxes. Kentucky’s revenue-limited cities seek modernization of these antiquated funding options and equalization of revenue tools currently only available to some cities based on prior classification. Traugott explained, “I think the keyword is ‘flexibility,’ and that’s what cities are looking for because we have a diverse group of cities, and the way to meet the revenue needs in Morehead may differ from Versailles.”
“Being able to diversify a little bit and not become overly reliant on that, from a growth perspective, is really important,” said Chaney. “Plus, getting people that enjoy those amenities that local governments have to offer that come in and travel into your communities and use those services to make some contribution to funding that is also something that local leaders are looking for.”
Chaney said revenue diversification, modernizing the outdated road funding formula, and workforce issues will be key topics addressed during the upcoming session.