Kentucky Horse Park seeking to exclude new hires from merit system, share in local ‘bedroom’ tax
Backers say changes are needed to compete with newer equine venues; head of state employees group is skeptical, says workers would lose rights
BY: JACK BRAMMER (Kentucky Lantern)
The Kentucky Horse Park wants state lawmakers to approve legislation that would exclude its new hires from the state merit system designed to protect employees from political influence.
It also is seeking enabling legislation to allow the park to tap into the transient or “bedroom” tax collected by hotels, motels and other providers of overnight lodging in Fayette and Scott counties.
The moves are several being mulled in hopes of making the 1,200-acre park in northern Fayette County off KY 1973 (Iron Works Pike) and Interstate 75 more self-sustaining and competitive with other horse arenas in the country, said the park’s executive director Lee Carter.
Other moves the park is seeking include increasing the number of members on the park commission and streamlining purchase procedures for the working horse farm and educational theme park that opened in 1978.
State Rep. Phil Pratt, R-Georgetown, said he will file the legislation on the first day of the Kentucky General Assembly on Jan. 3.
Senate Majority Leader Damon Thayer, R-Georgetown, who called the legislation “a work in progress,” said he thinks it will be dealt with in the early part of next year’s 30-day session, which is to end March 30.
Thayer said he is for any legislation that can make the park more competitive and financially viable.
Merit System change
The most controversial part of the Horse Park legislation is expected to be the merit system, said Pratt.
Carter said the legislation would not affect the 55 to 60 merit employees currently at the park.
“They would stay in the merit system but new hires would not,” he said.
Most state workers in the executive branch of state government are merit employees under Kentucky Revised Statute 18A. They often are referred to as “18A employees.”
The merit system emphasizes making personnel decisions (hiring, promoting, assigning work and other matters) based on an individual’s qualifications and performance. It also protects state employees against arbitrary actions and discriminatory practices. Politics is not to be involved.
Political appointees, like cabinet secretaries and other managers, are non-merit. They generally serve at the pleasure of the governor.
According to the state Personnel Cabinet, there are 28,719 full-time executive branch employees. Of them, 22,359 are “18A” merit employees.
A total of 1,881 state employees are classified as “non-chapter.” They are state employees not in political positions but are not under the merit system. Most of them work for the Kentucky State Fair board and various boards and commissions.
Non-chapter state employees receive state benefits like health insurance but have no right to appeal any personnel action to the state Personnel Board.
Carter said excluding new employees from the merit system would give the Horse Park “more flexibility” in staffing.
“The merit system is a wonderful system but it can be a slow process of bringing in people and hiring,” he said. “Last year we lost 10 employees and needed to replace most of them quickly. We have 30 miles of fences and much mowing and trimming to keep up with.
“Being non-merit will allow us to act more quickly in staffing,” he said. “We believe we have a lot of similarities with the Fair Board and would like to operate similarly.”
David Smith, executive director of the Kentucky Association of State Employees, opposes the idea of not placing new Horse Park hires in the merit system.
“I think it’s a bunch of nonsense,” he said. “They would not be afforded the rights under the merit system and likely would be more subject to political patronage.”
Smith said the practice of making more state workers “non-chapter” has been increasing.
“It already is hard enough to find people to work for the state,” he said. “This practice will only make it that much harder. It should be stopped. It’s just another way of removing the rights of employees.”
Many of the more than 600,000 people who visit the Horse Park each year as tourists or competitors stay in hotels, motels and other overnight lodging in Fayette and Scott counties, said Carter.
“We are busy 50 weeks out of the year. The bedroom tax would be a revenue stream for us of about $1 million annually,” he said.
“The extra money could help the park lower its fees to visit or compete at the park, help improve 40 years of deferred maintenance and maybe ask the General Assembly for less of a state appropriation.
“I would love to have a bedroom tax earmarked for the Horse Park.”
The legislature could not dictate on its own that Fayette’s and Scott’s bedroom tax receipts go to the Hhorse Park, said Carter.
“Those taxes are set by the local tourism bureaus. They would have to determine if any money goes to the horse park. Those local tourism agencies would have to approve it and then it would go to their councils.”
Mary Quinn Ramer, president of VisitLex and a member of the Horse Park commission, stressed that what the Horse Park is seeking now is only enabling legislation from the state.
“Many decisions would have to be made before this would become a reality,” she said.
Fayette County has a 9.5% transient or bedroom tax. Of that, 1% goes to the state for tourism efforts, 4% goes to VisitLex and the rest to retire debt.
For every percentage point, the tax generates about $2 million, said Ramer. That means VisitLex gets about $8 million a year from the tax to promote tourism efforts.
“We would have to get input from the hotels and motels before supporting the Horse Park,” Ramer said.
Carter noted that the bedroom tax in Lexington is supporting the Central Bank Center, a multi-purpose event and convention facility in downtown Lexington that includes Rupp Arena.
“We just think the Horse Park should get some help, too,” he said.
Asked if the goal is to make the Horse Park a private enterprise, Carter said, “That idea has been around for years. I don’t know if that makes sense. I’m much more inclined to make ourselves more efficient.”
Other possible changes
Membership of the Kentucky Horse Park commission would increase under the proposed legislation.
The commission now has 13 members appointed by the governor along with the secretaries of the tourism and economic development cabinets.
Under the legislation now being considered, the number of appointments by the governor would drop to 12 and the finance secretary would replace the economic development secretary.
Also added to the commission would be the state agriculture commissioner, the dean of the University of Kentucky College of Agriculture and the tourism directors from Lexington and Georgetown.
“These changes in the commission could provide better long-term strategic plans,’ said Carter.
Another change being sought by the Horse Park deals with state regulations on purchasing and getting rid of old equipment.
Under the legislation, the park would remain under the state Tourism Cabinet.
Considered earlier for the legislation was a provision to give the Horse Park eminent domain authority to take nearby private property for its use, following the payment of just compensation.
“We modeled the language in our legislation after that of the state Fair Board,” said Carter. “Eminent domain was initially in but we soon deleted it. We have no eminent domain issues here at the park. We are surrounded by folks of whom we would have no desire to move into their space.”
Reason for the changes
Up until late 2010, the Kentucky Horse Park was the biggest, most well-known venue and horse leader for equine events in the United States, said Carter.
Since then, five or six major horse facilities have come on line that are privately funded,” he said. “They are potential competition. All those facilities will want to host the events we have.”
The Horse Park’s annual operating budget is $13.9 million. About $2.2 million of that comes from the state’s General Fund, which pays for most state programs. The rest is generated by the park.
“Our goal is to be able to manage ourselves and to compete against the private industry. It is how we maintain what we treasure,” said Carter, who came on board in January as the park’s executive director.
Carter, of Georgetown, had been executive director of Equestrian Events, Inc., the organizing body for the Land Rover Kentucky Three-Day Event, since 2012, that attracts more than 80,000 guests to the park.
He said the park’s commission is “fully aware” of the legislation.
At a Nov. 17 meeting of the House Economic Development and Workforce Investment Commission, Alston Kerr, the horse park’s commission chair, appeared with Rep. Pratt and Carter to discuss the legislation.
She said, “State requirements make it very hard to operate a facility as diverse as we are and to be competitive in the private market.
“We need a level playing field to be competitive.”
Jack Brammer, a native of Maysville, has been a news reporter in Kentucky since 1976. He worked two years for The Sentinel-News in Shelbyville and then from 1978 to 2021 in the Lexington Herald-Leader’s Frankfort bureau. After retiring in December 2021 from the Herald-Leader, he became a freelance writer for various publications. Brammer has a Master’s degree in communications from the University of Kentucky and is a member of the Kentucky Journalism Hall of Fame.
This article was republished with permission from the Kentucky Lantern.
Top photo: Entrance sign to the Kentucky Horse Park in Lexington. (Photo by Getty Images)
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