Versailles Mayor Brian Traugott said Friday that it's time to study whether merger of the Versailles, Midway and Woodford County governments would be beneficial to residents.
At its next regular meeting at 5:30 p.m. Tuesday, Versailles City Council will discuss a first reading of an ordinance "proposing the formation of a commission to study the question of unifying" local governments into a "unified local government."
Traugott said "two prolonged battles with the county" over city-county funding of parks and recreation and joint funding of emergency management prompted the ordinance.
The dispute over parks and recreation is being resolved, but the fiscal court voted this week to end its participation in the funding of emergency management.
"The public has seen disagreements from either side, and I think they realize that combining services is efficient," Traugott said. "At the very least, we should have a discussion of the issues, and the only way to have a fair discussion is to appoint a commission that consists of more than a mayor, council, fiscal court or judge."
Unified government has been "whispered about for a decade or better here," Traugott said. "I've heard it from many people: 'Why don't we merge government?' The chatter has picked up in light of these recent battles."
Woodford County Judge-Executive John Coyle said he hasn't heard that chatter.
"I have not had any citizens come to me asking me to investigate merged government," Coyle said. "I thought there would be more talk about it before the mayor took steps and put it on the agenda."
Lexington, which is merged with Fayette County, and Louisville, which is merged with Jefferson County, 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. Somerset and Pulaski County studied a possible merger, and a unification commission released its findings in January, but there has been no movement beyond that.
Woodford County Fiscal Court and at least one of the city councils must pass similar ordinances to create a "unification review commission." County government must be part of the equation, according to state law.
Coyle said he couldn't say whether fiscal court magistrates would seek to put a similar ordinance on the county agenda.
"I don't know what the wishes of the court would be at this time," Coyle said. "I haven't talked to our county attorney about it."
Under the state's 2006 unified-government law, the cost of the study commission would be financed by the fiscal court and each participating city in proportion to their relative populations. The population of the county would exclude the population of any participating city, the law says.
The judge-executive and the mayor of the participating city with the largest population would jointly determine the size of the unification review commission, which would have 20 to 40 members. The membership of the commission would be divided equally between the county and the participating cities. The mayor of each participating city shall, with the approval of the city legislative body, make a number of appointments based on the ratio that the percentage of the population in the mayor's city bears to the population of all participating cities.
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.
Selling the idea of a merger isn't easy. Some residents worry that a merged government would be less responsive. And researchers have questioned whether a merger delivers significant savings.
Asked why he thought the fiscal court would consider adopting an ordinance to study unified government, Traugott said, "If they believe they are a more efficient provider of services, they can take the gamble that the commission would find that."
Traugott also said, "It's good public policy for the residents of Versailles to examine an issue to see whether it's worth moving forward. I don't see a downside to discussing an issue."
Traugott said a couple of Versailles City Council members are "strongly in favor" of studying unified government.
"The point that cannot be forgotten is that this is forming a commission to study the issue," Traugott said. "It may turn out that the commission gets together and says, 'This is the dumbest thing we've ever heard.'"