LAWRENCEBURG — Lexington and Louisville are the only merged city-county governments in the commonwealth, but talk of another has cropped up in a Central Kentucky community.
A group of civic leaders, professionals and retirees has organized to promote the study of unifying the governments of Anderson County and Lawrenceburg. Among them is George Geoghegan III, a retired clerk of the Kentucky Court of Appeals, who said a unified government would eliminate duplicated services.
"We would have one department for everything instead of two," Geoghegan said. "And not only that, I think it would get rid of some of the tax districts who abuse their authority."
Walter Patrick, a retired attorney who assembled the group, said a merger would mean greater efficiency.
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"We may fall flat on our face, but I can't imagine it being anything but something for the better," Patrick said.
Patrick, 84, was city attorney for Lawrenceburg from 1952 to 1972. After that, he served as a circuit judge and an attorney for the Anderson County Board of Education. Patrick retired last year but has been interested in the idea of unified government for years.
As tax bases shrink and because some jobs might never return from the recession, it's possible that city and county governments across the state will take a closer look at consolidating services, if not outright unification.
"That's another reason why I thought the timing was right to try to do it now," Patrick said. "Whether you're a Democrat or Republican or whatever, right now people are fed up with more taxes and more spending."
Hard-hit cities and counties will see more cuts if a proposed spending plan passes Congress — all the more reason for merger, Patrick argues.
"I think it's needed more for the small counties than it is for the larger counties," Patrick said, because resources are more limited for them.
Elected leaders would like to hear more about the idea.
Under a 2006 "unified local government" law, Anderson County Fiscal Court and Lawrenceburg City Council would need to enact separate ordinances proposing that a commission be formed to study merger.
Lawrenceburg Mayor Edwinna Baker said she has asked Patrick's group to come before the city council and take questions during a work session.
"You're almost going to have to see a study to get a good clear picture on it," Baker said. "I can't say whether the council will vote for a study or not."
Anderson County Judge-Executive John Wayne Conway isn't convinced a merger would create any savings, but he said he isn't shutting the door to exploring the idea.
"I would really like for this group to have a sit-down and explain to me why they're wanting to do it," Conway said. "We're not Lexington and we're not Louisville."
Efforts toward merged governments have been mixed elsewhere in Kentucky.
Lexington and Fayette County merged in 1974 to become the Lexington-Fayette Urban County Government. The point of merger was to eliminate duplication of services and to ensure that outlying areas received basic services such as running water, sewers and garbage pickup.
In 2003, Louisville became the second city in Kentucky to merge its government with that of the county.
But voters in Daviess and Warren counties rejected city-county mergers in 1990. Two proposals to merge Frankfort and Franklin County governments were defeated — one in 1988 and another in 2004.
During the past year, Paducah and McCracken County have been studying consolidation. Its 21-member committee might recommend full government merger or the merger of some services.
Under the 2006 unified government law applicable to Lawrenceburg and Anderson County, the city and county would bear the costs of the study committee equally. The costs aren't known, but Patrick said there's a possibility private money could be raised to cover them.
Patrick hopes that some free assistance might come from the Bluegrass Area Development District, the Kentucky League of Cities or the Kentucky Association of Counties.
The judge-executive and the mayor would jointly determine the size of the "unification review commission," which would have 20 to 40 members. The number of appointments from the city and county would be the same, Patrick said, given that Lawrenceburg and the unincorporated areas of Anderson County each have about 11,000 residents.
Patrick said he doesn't necessarily want to chair the study committee. "I wouldn't run from it, but I'm not seeking that position," he said.
In any case, 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.
Since talk of a merger surfaced a couple of weeks ago, Patrick said he hasn't heard much opposition.
"The nearest thing by way of opposition," he said, "is that one or two have said, 'We don't want to change anything. It was good for grandfather, so let's leave it alone.'"