Upcoming ordinance causes concern with local attorneys

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By Kenny Colston

A proposed ordinance in front of the La Grange City Council is sparking a debate over the city’s business license fees.

The section in question lies with language regarding attorneys and how the license applies to them.

Critics of the proposed law, including Councilman Jason Taylor, say the changes are a precondition to practicing law by placing a fee on attorneys that do not have offices in the city and that there are multiple legal issues associated with the proposed language.

But city attorney Steve Emery disagrees about the purpose of the ordinance, which he wrote.

“Attorneys are already under the business license,” Emery said. “The purpose of this amendment is to clean it up to help sustain a legal challenge. We really didn’t change anything.”

According to Emery, any attorney that handles a case in La Grange, where the county’s courthouse is, must apply for a business license and pay a fee based on amount of income earned in the city limits. The minimum for any business is $55, which would apply to attorneys whether or not they have an office in the city limits, Emery said.

“They can practice here, then at the end of the year tally up what they did, then pay it,” he said. “If you are an attorney and you practice here in Oldham County, you’re making use of the courts, then you’re doing business in La Grange.”

Emery said only what happens inside the city limits counts for the purposes of the fee.

“Quite frankly, it’s how it’s always been,” he said. “We’re not saying you can’t practice here without a (business) license, we’re saying if you do business here, you have to tally it up and pay that fee. A lot of attorneys will just be subject to the minimum.”

Previously, any business could be shut down if they didn’t pay the fees associated with the license, but Emery said the new language exempts attorneys out of stop work orders. Instead, the city could issue additional penalties for failure to pay. Attorneys also don’t have to display their business license, as other businesses do.

But Taylor, the councilman and an attorney whose office is in Louisville, disagrees that how the ordinance is worded achieves the outcomes Emery says they do.

“I’m very much against this,” Taylor said. “My position is there are constitutional issues with this. I believe it places preconditions on practicing laws, which only the Supreme Court can do.”

Other attorneys in La Grange have mixed reactions to the ordinance. Michael Pate, who practices in the county and has an office on Main Street in La Grange, said many attorneys in the county aren’t aware they even needed a business license.

“There’s been some confusion about that,” Pate said.

Pate said he doesn’t have a problem with charging a license fee to attorneys who have office space in the city of La Grange, but he doesn’t agree it should extend to everyone.

“I’m concerned if an attorney in Jefferson County with an office in Jefferson County, who has a random case out here, is charged for a business license,” he said.

But as an attorney who practices in the county and has an office in La Grange, Pate said he has no problem with paying a license fee.

Taylor said if the ordinance passes at the council’s March 3 meeting, where it’s scheduled to have its second hearing and a vote, it could greatly reduce the number of attorneys willing to practice in the county.

“It’ll be more difficult for people to find an attorney they want to use because of this tax,” Taylor said. “It does not seem fair. An attorney from Ashland or Paducah might be in court five minutes and they have to pay a fee. What about phone conferences, does (the ordinance) attempt to govern that?”

Taylor said he has talked with both the Louisville Bar Association and Kentucky Bar Association about the proposed ordinance. Taylor said attorneys already pay a fee to the KBA for the ability to practice in all 120 counties in Kentucky and that the city of La Grange doesn’t have the legal grounds to add another fee.

“For Bill Lammlein to say he wants another fee on top of that is ridiculous,” Taylor said.

Taylor said he believes the proposal is retribution for his opposition to the mayor’s position on unpaid insurance money the city forgot to collect earlier this year. Lammlein wanted to the city to pay the uncollected fees, while Taylor wanted employees to pay the difference. The council ultimately sided with Lammlein’s position.

Taylor claims Lammlein told him an ordinance like the one the council is currently considering would be introduced if Taylor didn’t drop his opposition on the insurance issue.

“I felt like it was a threat to me and my family, that he was going to come after me and my law firm,” Taylor said. “I’ve told others about it. Whether it’s related or not, no one can know except him. But that doesn’t take away that the ordinance on its face has issues.”

Lammlein said he did not threaten Taylor or even try to appear to threaten the councilman. Instead, in a private conversation, Lammlein said he was informing Taylor of the potential ordinance and referenced the councilman’s law firm as one of many Louisville-area firms that weren’t following currently city law in regards to the business tax.

“I didn’t use it as a threat and I’m sorry he took it that way,” Lammlein said. “It was something we were batting around anyway.”

Taylor said with the city’s financial issues, the last thing it needs is for Emery to defend it in various lawsuits against the proposed ordinance.

“I hope the council will look at the reasons given and consider the negative situations this could have,” Taylor said. “I hope they reject or table (this ordinance).”

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