Merging a hot topic among Kentucky counties and cities

2006 law and weak economy make the idea attractive

gkocher1@herald-leader.comAugust 15, 2011 

Call it the urge to merge. Thanks to a 2006 law and perhaps the distressed economy, public discussion about the unification of city and county governments is under way in more Kentucky communities now than ever before.

Several counties have either discussed mergers or are studying future mergers, mostly as ways to get leaner during economic turmoil. Some officials see it as a way to reduce costs; others are not sure mergers bring significant savings. Regardless, the topic remains hot.

On Aug. 8, Garrard County Fiscal Court voted unanimously for an ordinance that will create a commission to study the consolidation of the county and the city of Lancaster, or at least streamline certain services. A final reading and vote on the study ordinance is set for Aug. 22.

On Monday night, Estill County Fiscal Court is supposed to submit the names of 21 residents to study the unification of that county with the cities of Ravenna and Irvine.

On Tuesday night, members of Anderson County Fiscal Court and the Lawrenceburg City Council will sit down together to hear a merger proponent discuss the law that outlines a process for unification. Anderson Judge-Executive John Wayne Conway said the fiscal court magistrates might vote that night to proceed with a merger study.

In late July, Scott County Fiscal Court and Georgetown City Council were encouraged by a local resident to look into merger, even though voters rejected the idea in a 1988 referendum.

Meanwhile, other unification efforts are under way in Hardin and McCracken counties. A similar effort is on hold in Spencer County as it awaits a ruling from the state Court of Appeals in a suit brought by Taylorsville against merger.

The flurry of discussion about city-county merger doesn't surprise Denny Nunnelley, executive director of the Kentucky Association of Counties.

Local governments are more dependent these days on payroll taxes paid by workers and occupational license fees paid by businesses. With fewer people working because of the sour economy, that puts a strain on the city and county budgets. That, in turn, puts pressure on elected officials to work as efficiently as possible, and that leads to public pleas to at least study either the consolidation of services — such as combining city police and sheriff's departments or consolidating city and county fire departments — or the outright merger of city and county governments.

"They're having to be prudent," Nunnelley said of elected officials.

Given this background, more residents and elected officials are talking openly about consolidation, Hardin Circuit Court Judge Ken Howard said. He chairs a governance subcommittee that looked into the possibility of merging Hardin County and its six incorporated cities.

"It is becoming more and more difficult in today's environment for smaller units of government to continue to provide services at a manageable tax rate," Howard said. "So I think the efficiencies that can often be gained from unification plays a part in that. The studies have shown that unified governments ... don't lower your taxes, but they keep them from escalating as high if you were not unified."

Don't count on savings

Selling the idea of a merger isn't easy. Some residents worry that a smaller, leaner government risks becoming a less-responsive one. And researchers have questioned whether a merger delivers significant savings.

"Academic studies of Jacksonville, Fla.'s combination with Duval County, and Miami's merger with Dade County found that costs actually rose post-merger as new bureaucracies emerged," The Wall Street Journal reported in June. The paper also cited a 2004 study by Indiana University's Center for Urban Policy and the Environment that found that costs creep back in because bigger pools of employees can negotiate for better wages, offsetting the savings of job cuts.

Foster Pettit, the last mayor of Lexington's old city government and the first under 1974's urban-county government, said he is careful to tell people interested in learning about mergers that a smaller budget doesn't necessarily come with consolidation.

"I have never said in my many talks to communities — and I've done it from Savannah, Ga., to Green Bay, Wis. — you're not going to have a smaller budget when you combine the two (city and county governments)," Pettit said. "What usually does happen is that the money you do have provides more and better services. When you consolidate, you will save money because you will use usually fewer people, but you get more bang for the buck. But I never say you're going to have a smaller budget."

Lexington and Louisville are the only merged city-county governments in Kentucky. Voters rejected merger proposals in Franklin and Scott counties in 1988, Daviess and Warren counties in 1990, Taylor County in 2002, and Franklin County again in 2004.

Under the state's 2006 unified-government law, the city and county equally bear the cost of a study committee. The judge-executive and the mayor jointly determine the size of this "unification review commission," which would have 20 to 40 members.

The law states that a unification plan "shall be completed" within two years of the commission's appointment. If a majority of the members are unable to agree on a plan for unification within two years, the commission dissolves.

If, on the other hand, the commission comes up with a plan, it would hold at least one public hearing — and probably more — to address questions from residents.

After its final public hearing, the commission would vote on the proposed plan and then submit it to voters. If the unification plan is rejected by voters, another vote could not be held for five years.

This is the type of path that Garrard and Hardin counties are following, and the same one that residents in Anderson and Scott counties have asked their elected officials to explore.

"All we're saying is, 'Give the public an opportunity.' Set up this commission, and let people look at it," Georgetown resident David Thompson said. "You're not voting for merger. You're voting for up to a two-year process of letting people in the community sit and talk about this. This new legislation offers the education into merged government — what it can do, what it cannot — that most merger attempts have not."

Estill County Fiscal Court, on the other hand, is following an alternate path, called a "non-binding resolution," in which volunteers would merely study the issue and bring forth a report, at no cost to taxpayers. Estill Judge-Executive Wallace Taylor has asked the three county magistrates to each submit the names of seven volunteers Monday night who would be willing to serve on the study committee, which would include people who live in Irvine and Ravenna. Irvine City Council voted against a study.

Taylor said he pushed the issue of unification because "People kept asking me, 'Why don't we look at doing it? Why don't we look at doing it?' ... I've heard about unifying at least the two cities since I was a kid.

"I feel like, if I'm going to be a leader, I've got to step out here and see if it's going to happen," Taylor said. "I may get my foot mashed, but I've tried."

Focusing priorities

In Hardin County, unification was driven by the military reorganization at Fort Knox, which meant losing its tank-training role but gaining a net increase of about 4,500 jobs as the Army's home for training, recruitment and human resources.

Part of the effort to prepare the community for that influx was a survey of community residents, Howard said. Those surveyed expressed an interest in unified government for Hardin County.

"Ninety percent of those in the survey indicated that unified government should be looked at, investigated, thought about," Howard said.

That led to a discussion and study of unification of the governments of the county and the six incorporated cities: Elizabethtown, Radcliff, Vine Grove, Sonora, Upton and West Point. Next month, the cities will be asked to be a part of the commission that will draw up a detailed plan for unification. (Upton presents a wrinkle because that city straddles the line between Hardin and LaRue counties, and although a city can cross county lines, a merged government cannot.)

Merger proponents in Hardin say unified government allows the community to speak with one voice and more efficiently target grants and appropriations that will benefit all residents.

"When you're unified as to your priorities, you have a much better chance of getting funded," Howard said. "When you're not unified, or when there are various factions or two or three different priorities for a particular community, then the tendency in Frankfort and Washington is, 'Until they get their act together, they're not going to get all that funding.' "

For Garrard County Judge-Executive John Wilson, studying the possibilities of unification just makes sense for taxpayers.

"Our road department is located in the city limits. So when it comes wintertime and it's time to scrape and salt the roads, all 12 or 13 of the road-department employees drive through the city, but they don't drop the blade or spread any salt until they leave the city limits. Does that make sense?" Wilson said.

"I think it behooves us as elected officials to try to think about and try to find ways we can be efficient," Wilson said. "I think the public expects it. Nobody cares who's providing the service. They just want to be sure it's still provided. Like the Little League fields. They don't care who's mowing the fields. They just want to be sure they get mowed."

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