Results of unified government study to be released this week (Somerset) Commonwealth Journal

Article originally posted to the (Somerset) Commonwealth Journal’s web site

By Bill Mardis

Somerset — Findings in a 10-month study of feasibility of unified local governments in Pulaski County will be presented at 6 p.m. Thursday, January 23 at The Center for Rural Development. Elected officials, candidates for public office and the public are urged to attend the Somerset-Pulaski County Chamber of Commerce-sponsored event in a “Chamber after Hours” format.

Luke B. Schmidt, president of Louisville-based consulting firm L.B. Schmidt & Associates, LLC, will make a formal presentation on the study’s findings, according to Brook Ping, chair of Somerset-Pulaski County United (SPCU), a group of about 150 local business and community leaders.

“Release of the study’s findings has become a much-anticipated community event,” said Ping.  “SPCU’s focus during this entire endeavor has simply been to learn more about the potential benefits that unified government might offer our community.  SPCU’s mission is to improve our community and to improve economic development opportunities and this study represents our first step down this path for a better future,” Ping emphasized.

None of the study’s findings has been released up to now. However, a news release from SPCU said a broad base of the study includes an analysis of existing governmental structures in Pulaski County, an examination of select community unified government structures in the United States and an overview of how to form unified governments in Kentucky and Pulaski County.

SPCU has emphasized from the onset that the $35,000 study will not advocate unification of city and county governments; only determine the feasibility of unified governments. They have pointed out that Somerset, with its current population of 11,296, is the 33rd largest city in Kentucky. Unified, with a population of more than 63,000, Somerset, now a third-class city, would be the third largest city in the state, qualifying for 2nd-class status.

Ping pointed out that unification, if approved by voters, is a slow-moving procedure. He estimated it would take at least four years.

“Lots of questions have been raised about unified government and what it might mean to the community,” said Schmidt.  “Our presentation will begin to answer these questions with real data about the current form of government in Pulaski County, contrasted with how communities with unified governments operate.  Clearly, opportunities exist to take Pulaski County’s good government and perhaps make it even better,” he commented.

Unifying governments requires several steps and the law is designed to make it difficult to merge in order to ensure considerable thought goes into developing the formal plan of unified government (also known as the charter), Schmidt stated.

Schmidt at the chamber forum will address what happens when merger occurs, including such things as what happens to jobs currently held by public workers; what impact does merger have on the sale of alcoholic beverages, school districts and utilities; and, will tax rates go up or down?

“The most important thing for everyone to keep in mind at this point is that unified government, if it does indeed occur, is a long way down the road,” Schmidt repeated.  “In the end, only voters, not SPCU nor locally elected officials, can approve or reject unification,” he emphasized.

“For now, we invite everyone in the community –– the general public, elected officials and potential future candidates for public office –– to join us at The Center as we embark on what most likely will be an extensive community dialogue on the future of local government in Pulaski County,” Schmidt concluded.

A major stumbling block is Somerset’s refusal to participate in the study. Somerset City Council has directed its legal department to obtain whatever help necessary to protect the existence and boundaries of the city. Ferguson City Council also has adopted a resolution opting out of the study. Pulaski Fiscal Court has cooperated, paying about $12,000 as its share of the study’s cost. Other cities in the county generally have taken a wait-and-see attitude.

Unified governments in the county would dissolve city boundaries and create one government for the entire county. The exception is Eubank which straddles the Pulaski-Lincoln county line and by state law is not eligible to participate in a unified government.

According to law, Pulaski Fiscal Court, Somerset City Council and governing bodies of Burnside, Ferguson and Science Hill by ordinance would create an official Unified Government Commission made up of between 20 and 40 members to plan a structure for a unified city-county government. Somerset and Ferguson apparently would not participate and, according to Schmidt, “would not have a seat at the table.”

Pulaski Fiscal Court would appoint half the members of a Unified Government Commission and the remaining members would be appointed by participating cities, prorated on population. It is not clear at this point how lack of participation by Somerset, the largest city in the county, would affect the unification process.

Any type of merged governments must be approved by voters of Pulaski County.