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Extension tax fight continues

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$128,000 in tax revenue spent so far

By Amanda Manning

Court documents reveal that both Oldham County Fiscal Court and the Oldham County Cooperative Extension Service want the county attorney to end the ongoing lawsuit against the extension service.

In August 2017, the Oldham County Extension Service proposed a 1.5 cent per $100 of assessed value tax at Oldham County Fiscal Court, claiming the legal right to do so without approval from the county government.

Fiscal court took no action on the proposed tax, citing they have no authority to approve or deny.

Oldham County Clerk Julie Barr requested the court’s ruling on the tax after she received conflicting information from the county on whether or not the extension could levy it without approval from fiscal court, while County Attorney John Carter questioned whether the tax was legal.

The extension service provides educational services in areas including agriculture and natural resources, family and consumer sciences, and 4-H youth development.

On Sept. 15, Circuit Court Judge Karen Conrad ruled that the tax could be included on tax bills, but the legality of the tax had to be challenged by taxpayers, not by county employees.

Carter then came back to court as an Oldham County taxpayer in October 2017.
The legality of the tax, which has been called an excellent question by Conrad, has yet to be decided.

According to court documents written by Judge-Executive David Voegele, $128,000 in taxpayer money has been spent by the two agencies so far in the suit.

Carter filed to be an intervener in the case Feb. 5. This motions allows a non-party to join ongoing litigation if the court approves.

Two days later, Voegele emailed Carter that fiscal court would not write a letter in support of the suit because the magistrates believe Carter is acting on an ethics opinion.

“I believe their attitude is a result, at least in part, from the fact that between extension and Julie Barr’s office taxpayer legal bills for the case is thus far $128,000,” the email filed in the court case reads. “If you lose in Circuit Court, it may be best to let it go.”

The extension service asked for a response to Carter’s motion.

In response to Carter’s decision, Voegele wrote a letter detailing fiscal court’s disagreement with Carter continuing the suit in his capacity.

A potential conflict of interest, which is also being debated among the attorneys, was discussed in that letter. “The Court views Mr. Carter’s further participation as a conflict of interest with his public responsibility and duties as Oldham County Attorney,” Attorney Berry Baxter wrote on behalf of fiscal court.

“Mr. Carter purchasing a lawn mower for his own home is clearly a private act,” he wrote. “Attempting to remove himself from his responsibility as County Attorney and intervene in this is not.”

The extension service also argues that a conflict of interest exists, while Carter believes one doesn’t.

“Any suggestion that Mr. Carter’s continued representation of the county and its fiscal court in other matters… creates a conflict of interest which precludes him in his individual capacity, from challenging the tax levied against him by the extension district as an individual taxpayer of Oldham County, is absurd,” Carter’s attorney, Lee Sitlinger, said.

In that letter dated Feb. 22, Voegele wrote, “Fiscal Court is very concerned about the fact that more than $128,000 of tax revenue has been spent thus far by the Extension District and Oldham County Clerk in connection of their respective positions.”

Carter argues that specific magistrates are in support of his decision and that letter only contains the Judge-Executive’s opinion.

“They all expressed surprise at the language used in the letter since their position had always been and continues to be one of neutrality,” Carter’s Attorney Lee Sitlinger wrote.

On Jan. 25, Judge Conrad entered an order that the case would be dismissed unless Carter was able “to produce a letter of consent by the Oldham County Fiscal Court to proceed or produce an ethics opinion allowing him to proceed.”

Laurence Woods of the Kentucky Bar Association, provided that ethics opinion, saying that he doesn’t believe there’s a conflict of interest, but there could be a potential issue in the future. “He should be allowed to participate in the lawsuit so long as he does not have a conflict of interest,” he wrote.

“Should Oldham County become actively involved as a party in the lawsuit, your client will be prohibited from representing the County,” he added.

Voegele’s letter also mentioned that. “His responsibility extends to 24 hours a day, 7 days a week for the entire four year period of his term – unless he surrenders the office,” court documents read.

The extension service wasn’t satisfied with Wood’s opinion and wants the case to be dismissed.

“Because Mr. Carter has not produced a letter of consent by the Oldham County Fiscal Court for him to proceed or produced an ethics opinion allowing him to proceed, because Mr. Carter has failed to produce either item, this action should be dismissed without further delay,” Attorney Jon Salomon wrote on behalf of the extension district and extension board.

The extension service also previously noted that Oldham County was one of six counties in the state without an extension tax.

Extension board chair Ken Heppermann previously explained the reasoning behind the tax. “We have reached the limit of what’s possible without cutting existing services. This would mean limited access for Oldham County’s youth, families, homeowners and farmers,” Heppermann said. “With additional funding, extension can maintain personnel and facilities necessary to meet these and other community needs.”

Oldham County Fiscal Court went into executive session during their meeting March 6. When they came out, a motion was made and approved to allow Voegele to ask Judge Conrad to expedite her decision on the extension tax suit.

That letter had not been filed at the time of press.

If Carter were to win the lawsuit, he is asking for taxpayers to be reimbursed from the extension district.

Both Saloman and Sitlinger have said that this lawsuit has the potential to impact extension districts across the state.

A new court date had not been set at the time of press.