City, county budgets face formidable constraints

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Budget time in local government always brings a certain amount of hand-wringing, some of it genuine, some in the category of posturing intended to show the voters just how effectively their elected leaders can handle the big and little crises of public life or sometimes to lay the groundwork for an upcoming tax increase. Recent deliberations by the City Commission and Fiscal Court undoubtedly included the usual indulgences in hyperbole, but some legitimate concerns were raised, too.

In last weeks work session at City Hall, the emphasis was on stagnating revenue from the lifeblood of the budget the occupational tax. This is a recurrent challenge in Frankfort, which enjoys the advantage of reliable income from the state government workforce but also must accept the consequences when that source begins to falter. At worst, city government literally feels the pain of workers who get the ax and no longer pay the tax. While threats to state job security may not be the worst ever seen in the state capital, City Manager Tony Massey told commissioners the revenue is nonetheless growing more slowly these days. The revelation is especially remarkable considering that the occupational tax rate has almost doubled in the past decade, growing from 1 percent to 1.75 percent of the paycheck of everyone working in Frankfort.

Also a familiar refrain was Commissioner Rodney Williams call for the city to find more ways of creating new jobs, thus new revenue. Frankfort has long dreamed of decreasing its dependence on state government, with somewhat mixed success in achieving that goal.

Over at the courthouse, meanwhile, magistrates voted 5-2 to approve a $23.1 million budget Thursday with the dissenters expressing suspicions it will require a property tax increase. The biggest impediment in the new county budget is debt service that has grown from $850,000 to $4.2 million in the past year, mostly because the county is still paying off $5.3 million in bonds issued to finance settlement of a lawsuit filed by five county jail employees against former Jailer Hunter Hay, who served prison time for sex-related crimes against women at the jail.

Perhaps the common theme of city and county budgetary travails is the near impossibility of changing the fundamental realities unless the city manager successfully carries out his assignment to produce new revenue sources. One way or another, the government must pay its bills and the taxpayers must pay the government.

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