Proposed merger of Somerset, Pulaski would produce state's third-largest local government

Workers were building a new fountain Thursday in front of the Pulaski County Courthouse in Somerset. Hil-Don Inc. of Burkesville is the general contractor on the $760,665 project.
Workers were building a new fountain Thursday in front of the Pulaski County Courthouse in Somerset. Hil-Don Inc. of Burkesville is the general contractor on the $760,665 project. Lexington Herald-Leader

SOMERSET — With fewer than 12,000 residents, Somerset ranks 33rd in population in Kentucky. But if the city plus three others — Ferguson, Science Hill and Burnside — consolidates with Pulaski County into one government representing more than 63,000 residents, it would rank as the third-largest in the state, behind only Louisville and Lexington.

On Thursday, a newly formed group announced that it will seek funding for a study to look at the pros and cons of merging Pulaski County and the four municipal governments.

Somerset-Pulaski County United, a group of 56 residents representing a cross-section of the community, said they will approach Pulaski Fiscal Court and Somerset City Council next week to seek help in financing the study.

How far this effort will go is unknown, and members of the steering group acknowledged that efforts to consolidate governments elsewhere in Kentucky were defeated at the ballot box.

Nevertheless, state Sen. Chris Girdler, R-Somerset, said "the time is now" to study the issue of consolidated government.

"I believe some form of unified government can make this community stronger and a better place to live," Girdler said. "However, it is imperative that we have more information so that we can make an informed decision.

"We live in a global marketplace, and we want to do everything we can to give Pulaski County a competitive advantage," Girdler said.

A merged community of more than 63,000 people might attract more attention from businesses and industries and could bring more jobs to the area, Girdler said.

It also would give the community one voice and make it easier to seek grants and appropriations in Frankfort and Washington, D.C.

Moving from "micropolitan" to "metropolitan" status would enhance the community's job-creation efforts and would create new opportunities for state and federal grants to help the community as a whole.

Some researchers have questioned whether a merger delivers significant savings. Studies of Jacksonville, Fla.'s consolidation with Duval County and of Miami's merger with Dade County found that costs actually rose post-consolidation "as new bureaucracies emerged," the Wall Street Journal reported in 2011. 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 and offset the savings of job cuts.

Material given to reporters Thursday by Somerset-Pulaski County United acknowledged that "while unified government may not save money, it will spend money more efficiently and help to hold down the rising cost of providing government services."

Somerset-Pulaski County United is raising private contributions for one-third of the study's $35,000 cost, said Brook Ping, a local developer and chairman of the group. The city and the county will be asked to contribute $11,600 each.

The cities of Burnside, Ferguson and Science Hill have been informed about the effort and could theoretically merge with Somerset and Pulaski County. The city of Eubank probably won't be allowed to merge because it straddles the Pulaski-Lincoln line. Although a city can cross county lines, a merged government cannot under state law.

Ping emphasized that conducting a study does not mean that any local governments are consolidating. Under Kentucky law, only voters can determine whether local governments should merge.

Lexington and Louisville are the only merged city-county governments in Kentucky. Lexington voters approved merger in 1972; Louisville voters, in 2000. But voters rejected merger proposals in Franklin and Scott counties in 1988, in Daviess and Warren counties in 1990, in Taylor County in 2002, in Franklin County again in 2004, and in McCracken County in 2012.

The SPCU has a proposal from L.B. Schmidt & Associates LLC, a Louisville consulting firm, to conduct the study, which would compare existing forms of government to a unified government. The study would look at other cities across the country that have consolidated, including Lexington and Louisville.

The study would take about four months. The Schmidt firm would then present its findings to the community and make a recommendation on whether to pursue a unified government.

If the community decides to pursue a merger, the mayor and county judge-executive would jointly determine the size of a unified government commission, which would have 20 to 40 members.

That commission would develop a legal plan of unified government within two years of the commission's appointment. If a majority of the members were unable to agree on a plan for unification within two years, the commission would dissolve.

If, on the other hand, the commission came up with a plan, it would hold public hearings 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 were rejected by voters, another vote could not be held for five years.

Somerset Mayor Eddie Girdler and Pulaski County Judge-Executive Barty Bullock were out of town Thursday could not be immediately reached for comment.