Wilder offers deal to Junction City

November 17, 2004|LIZ MAPLES

JUNCTION CITY - Boyle County Judge-Executive Tony Wilder tried to sweeten his plan for a county payroll tax increase for the people that work here.

He suggested that if he could get support to raise the tax rate from 0.45 percent to 0.85 percent, then the Fiscal Court could give the city $32,000. That is the amount Junction City plans to collect from its 1 percent payroll tax. The gift would allow Junction City's tax to be eliminated.

Wilder pitched his plan at a public meeting Monday, but he was cautious not to be pinned to the plan, saying several times that he would need the magistrates' support.

For an hour, Wilder explained the financial condition of the county. A series of unexpected events has the county looking at a deficit of $800,000.


It seemed that Wilder was preaching to the choir.

The public made a poor showing at the public hearing. There were more politicians, county department heads and a few regulars from the Junction City Council meetings.

The county will likely hold a second meeting here to try to get input. Wilder also invited the residents to come to one of the other four meetings he will hold in the county.

A sore subject

Taxes are a sore subject here where residents already pay the highest insurance tax rate in the state, and the council just added a 1 percent payroll tax and an occupational license fee.

Magistrate Donnie Coffman polled the room, asking everyone who supports the tax increase to raise their hands. A dozen hands went up.

Coffman said if the people want him to vote "Yes," he will, and if they don't want it then he will vote, "No." The statement drew response from City Council member Dewayne Taylor, who voted earlier this year with the council to levy the 1 percent payroll tax when the city coffers looked to be drained.

"I understand no one wants to raise taxes, but you can't count votes, you have to do what's good for the whole county," he told Coffman.

Taylor is employed by the county's emergency medical service. If the tax isn't raised, the magistrates could be forced to take an ambulance, paramedic and an emergency medical technician off the road.

Wilder said the decision would save the county $80,000 a year, but that one ambulance makes so many runs that it would end up costing the county $230,000 in lost medical bills.

EMS looked at its budget, tried to find other ways to cut 5 percent from the department, but Wilder said cutting personnel was the only way to do it.

"We looked at services, we looked at cleaning supplies, but I don't give a daggone bling, we had to look at (laying off) people."

The paid ambulance service was created during Wilder's administration. In 1994 it was all volunteer and had a budget of $2,000. Now the budget is $1.5 million.

"I don't regret that decision, and I'll tell you why," Wilder said. "We've saved lives ... as a public official you can't have a better feeling than knowing we have saved lives ... but it cost money." There are now 25 trained medical professionals on call 24 hours a day.

Defending programs

Wilder defended the programs that the county has created during his 12-year administration - a new jail, Millennium Park, staffed convenience centers.

He said that the county would have been in fine shape if it weren't for the state. When the county built the jail, it made room for juveniles. Because of special requirements, few counties in the state can house juveniles. Then, in 2002 the state opened its own juvenile facilities. That cost the county $400,000. "(Former) Gov. (Paul) Patton took $400,000 away from us just like that," Wilder said, snapping his fingers. "What business, corporation do you know could deal with a $400,000 loss just like that?"

Now the county also has to pay the state to house its juvenile offenders, and the sheriff's office has to spend time ferrying them back and forth from London to go to court.

The state Corrections Cabinet has defended the decision, saying that while it was rough on counties like Boyle that housed offenders, it was a good deal to other counties that had to pay to have their juveniles housed at Boyle.

Wilder said that the county was building up a surplus until the state opened its own facilities.

In the meantime, there is overcrowding at the jail. It is built to house 174 people.

"There are 250 people there tonight," Wilder said. "They have to have a place to sleep ... something to wear, something on their feet ... medical care ... it's a burden on the taxpayers."

He said that on top of that the Fiscal Court had to hire more people to staff the jail. "We're having a financial crisis and now we're overpopulated ... I think God's testing me," Wilder said.

Wilder told the court that even after the state took the juveniles he and the magistrates decided to give pay raises to the jail employees. "We decided that it was worth more than $8 an hour to be puked on ... ," Wilder said. The court raised each employee 50 cents an hour.

People listened

Wilder preached. People listened. In the end, the residents who were there said they support the tax.

Resident Kitty Rosel said she wishes that more people would educate themselves about the county's position, and said she fears most people wouldn't understand, but just be against the taxes. She cautioned Coffman about just voting based on a count of the number of people that tell him they are against it, and those for it.

"If people would only realize that everything's gone up, utilities, gas bills. How do they expect the county to work on the status quo?"

The county payroll tax hasn't been increased since 1988, and Boyle has the lowest property tax rate in the state. "You've got the best deal in the state of Kentucky," Wilder said.

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