March 20, 2014

Publisher's Notebook: City should pass restaurant tax

By Willie Sawyers

LAUREL COUNTY, Ky. — On a cold, clear evening last week, two young men let off some steam on the basketball courts behind the Farmer’s Market in downtown London. It was cold enough for the hoopsters to see their breaths as they ran up and down the court.

On warm evenings, the courts are jam packed with people playing pickup games. Most of these people don’t have gym memberships. But basketball is fun, and it’s a great way to get the heart rate up.

The activity at the basketball courts is non stop in the summer, which demonstrates a sad reality. It’s a shame that in a county of 60,000 people, a sizable portion of them young people looking for something to do, there are only two small, cramped basketball courts for them to play on.

That’s why London City Council needs to finalize the restaurant tax.

The first reading of a proposed three-percent restaurant tax has already passed the city council by a slim margin. But there are indications that some council members may be reconsidering their positive vote before the second and final reading of the ordinance takes place.

They should think twice before sending the proposed tax to defeat.

London, and Laurel County together, desperately need more places for people to recreate, to exercise and to gather and enjoy life in this beautiful area of the country. The existing parks and recreation centers, like Mill Street and the two small basketball courts, are over utilized and inadequate to fill the needs of a growing community.

A new city park, along with hiking and biking trails and other tourism-recreation related activities, were listed as priorities in the Vision 2020 assessment completed for the area a few years ago. The top priority, a new vocational school, is currently under construction. So, London has an opportunity to address its greatest needs now and in the future.

But it won’t happen in a timely manner unless the city passes the restaurant tax and procures a steady stream of revenue, estimated at about $2 million a year, to build and maintain this needed infrastructure.

Along with passing the tax, the council needs to consider and implement three recommendations to make the tax more palatable to citizens.

First, council members need to go on record that money from the tax will only be used for tourism and recreational activities as currently mandated. A legislative effort in Frankfort could give cities more flexibility to dump restaurant tax money into their general funds. But that would be a waste and won’t help London take care of its pressing needs.

Secondly, the new city tourism commission must work hand in hand with the existing London-Laurel County Tourism Commission. There really is no need for two tourism commissions here, and the city handled the formation of its new commission very poorly, which led to a lot of questions and negativity about the proposed restaurant tax.

So, the pressure is on all those appointed tourism officials to show they can work together without a duplication of services and without creating their own little fiefdoms. We don’t need a new tax to create a new government bureaucracy.

After some initial surprise and concern over the city’s tourism commission, there are signs that the two groups are finding ways to work together. It’s crucial that they do.

Thirdly, the city council needs to reassess its commitment to the wellness park currently under construction at College Park. It doesn’t make any sense to spend millions of dollars developing a park that no one is excited about. In this case, if you build it, no one will come.

London and its citizens will be better served with a new city park within walking distance of downtown. That would tie everything together and make the downtown area even more vibrant and alive.

No one likes paying more taxes, but people are more receptive if they know what the money will be used for. The money generated by the restaurant tax will certainly make London and Laurel County a better place to live.

We have the need. City council members have the opportunity. Now, all they need is the vision and the courage.