August 8, 2013

Publisher's Notebook: City undertakes another money grab

By Willie Sawyers

LAUREL COUNTY, Ky. — After using blackmail to extort a greater percentage of occupational tax revenues from the county, the City of London used another unsettling tactic Monday night to bolster its financial future: divorce.

“Ladies and gentlemen, it’s time we took control of our own future,” London Mayor Troy Rudder said as the London City Council voted to establish its own tourism and convention commission.

With that, council members walked out on a relationship with the London-Laurel County Tourism Commission that, from their own admission, has been successful in making the area a prime tourist stop in Southeastern Kentucky.

And they didn’t even leave a message, a note on the wall or anything when they slammed the door.

At the same time as the council’s vote, Rodney Hendrickson was across town wrapping up a long, successful day coordinating a junior golf tournament at Crooked Creek that has brought about 500 families into London from all over the world.

He began getting texts and phone calls about the city’s vote which neither he, nor any other tourist commission member, knew anything about. Today, Hendrickson and tourism co-executive director Kim Collier are probably wondering if they’re going to have a job.

Rudder confirmed at this point the city has no plans to confiscate any of the three percent motel room tax currently funding the London-Laurel County Tourism Commission, which will leave that revenue in place and ensure the commission’s future. The folks over at the Wilderness Road Center will be glad to find that out.

The mayor said the city will fund its seven-member tourism commission internally at first, with the option of tacking on its own transient room tax at a later date, similar to what Somerset did a few months ago when it formed a tourism commission for that city. Hotels in Somerset are now paying a seven percent room tax.

Rudder also said he talked with a few mayors from around the area who agreed with London’s idea of establishing its own tourism commission. But for what reason? The Somerset mayor was openly hostile and said his city had been “excluded” from participating in the joint city-county tourism commission, so they started their own. London can’t say it’s been excluded as the reason it wants to go it alone.

So what is the main reason London wants a divorce? Sources indicate that while everything appears all lovey-dovey on the surface, friction has developed over a proposed restaurant tax, and to some extent, competition between The Party Barn and the London Community Center.

The city has the option to pass a restaurant tax to help fund tourism-related activities. It’s been bandied about for years. Under the current setup, all the revenue would go to the London-Laurel Tourism Commission, with a percentage going to London at an agreed-upon rate. That’s creating a conflict.

The tourism commission has always maintained it would split the restaurant tax 50-50 with the city. Rudder and other council members apparently thought a 75-25 split in the city’s favor was a better scenario.

Now, that potential disagreement is entirely moot because London will keep 100 percent of the proposed restaurant tax for its own tourism and convention commission. The city has a wellness park and other tourism-related activities it is trying to develop with dwindling revenues.

The London-Laurel County Tourism Commission has spent millions of dollars, from federal and state grants and its own motel-tax revenues, to develop Heritage Hills, commonly referred to as the Party Barn. It was initially supposed to be a civil war museum, but has basically turned into a gathering place that competes for weddings, meetings and other events directly with the London Community Center. Another potential for conflict.

The city seems intent on undertaking another money-power grab with reckless disregard for the spirit of cooperation that has made London-Laurel County unique in the area, and prosperous. How exactly will two tourism commissions work in Laurel County? Probably not very well and with a lot of confusion and overlap. More government bureaucracy, as the Tea Party calls it.

The way the city council handled the vote, without notice to the other tourism commission and the people it affects, tells of a greedy and arrogant attitude that has somehow crept into the ductwork at London City Hall.

This is now the message from city leaders to anyone doing business with the City of London: Give us what we want or we’ll serve you with papers and take it ourselves.