In an unexpected turn of events, the Owensboro City Commission has begun the process of rolling back a set of ordinances it unanimously approved in early June that would have annexed several Daviess County Public Schools sites near the city limits.
Without any verbal opposition, city commissioners at a special-called meeting at City Hall on Tuesday heard the first reading of six ordinances that would repeal those six they had approved last month annexing Apollo and Daviess County high schools, Burns Middle School, Burns and Highland elementary schools and the future site of the relocated Daviess County Middle School, as well as the district central office and transportation and maintenance department headquarters.
It was a stunning change of course for the commission which had, until recently, publicly thrown its support behind ongoing negotiations between City Manager Nate Pagan and DCPS Superintendent Matt Robbins.
The two had promised to make a deal that would have no net increase on employee salaries — despite a higher occupational tax rate — and would give the district an incentive to approve of the forced annexation maneuver.
Daviess County educators came out in force earlier this summer against the city's proposed ordinances, but, against strong opposition — even from Robbins and a board of education representative — the city approved those annexation ordinances with the promise that a deal to make employees whole would soon follow.
"I cannot say enough about the efforts of our staff as they tried diligently to accommodate each group to reach some sort of compromise," said Mayor Tom Watson reading a set of prepared remarks before the commission Tuesday. "In the end, sometimes a bad compromise is worse than no deal at all. Last week, I polled the commission, and we all decided to pull the plug on this opportunity to prepare for the unknown."
Sources close to the negotiations had said that an agreement would have involved the city reimbursing the district with tax increment financing dollars to subsidize their employees. What remained unclear, as of last month, was what, albeit small, share of occupational tax dollars the district could be owed, how the city would help finance school resource officers and a timeline for the allocation of funds.
Why exactly the city announced its policy reversal remained uncertain after Tuesday's meeting.
Pagan and DCPS Board Attorney Sean Land declined to comment after the mayor made his remarks. Watson, too, said he believed that there was no reason to "get in the weeds pertaining to the discussions leading to this conclusion" and, at first, declined to comment himself.
But, pressed for answers on Tuesday, he said he had received a deluge of calls from businesses and organizations inside or near the city limits who said they wanted a deal similar to that which had been reported on by the media.
"I had more calls from businesses inside the city wanting the same deal to make their employees whole than anything else," he said. "That was as much a part of the discussion about that as anything else."
The mayor specifically pointed to companies like Swedish Match, whose moist snuff and chewing tobacco factory on Industrial Drive falls outside the corporate limits. Annexing the facility would amount to a $5 million stimulus in tax revenue over a five-year period, he said. He also referenced Kentucky Legend, which operates a plant on Dublin Lane that straddles the city limits.
Earlier in his prepared comments, the mayor said he took full responsibility for the intent to annex and that, although he had initially expressed concerns because he believed it was a bold, controversial move with a short window of opportunity, he came to the ultimate conclusion that it was a way to help physically grow the almost entirely landlocked city and that it would help bring more equity among Daviess County-Owensboro employees.
"I truly hate the fact that so many different groups were drawn into the discussion," Watson read allowed, but he said later that he did not regret his decision to initially bring up the ordinances for a vote.
Robbins issued a written statement on Tuesday in which he states that, should the city commission move forward with its plans to repeal the ordinances, all occupational tax rates will revert back to the county's rates. Currently, Daviess Fiscal Court levies a 0.35% tax, but it will increase to 1% in 2021.
"We appreciate our elected city officials for their thoughtful review and consideration of this process," Robbins stated. "We are very pleased that we were able to reach this positive outcome that is in the best interest of all parties."
Pagan said a tax-sharing agreement the city had reached with the fiscal court will be voided by the repeals as well.
The commission is scheduled to vote on the repeal ordinances at another special-called meeting on Thursday.
Austin Ramsey, 270-691-7302, email@example.com, Twitter: @austinrramsey