Hardin Fiscal Court takes the fate of county unification into its hands starting Tuesday.
Hardin Judge-Executive Harry Berry said the first reading of an ordinance establishing a unification review commission tentatively is scheduled for Tuesday’s meeting of Hardin Fiscal Court at the H.B. Fife Courthouse in Elizabethtown. Approval of the commission would put in motion the mechanism to draft a charter for unified local government.
Hardin County United, the volunteer organization lobbying for the commission, appeared before Fiscal Court for a second time in June, but no formal action has been taken as magistrates gather information and hear from constituents.
HCU wants to present the charter to Hardin County voters by November 2014, and a plan only can be issued by the committee, a 20-to-40-member body appointed by participating governments. The appointment of the commission is not a vote in favor of unification, but creates a designated body to flesh out what unification would look like in Hardin County, HCU officials said.
Under state law, the county and at least one city must partner to form a unified government.
Ken Howard, chairman of the HCU governance subcommittee, said Wednesday he has been pleasantly surprised by responses he has heard. HCU officials installed an online mechanism allowing residents to send their opinions directly to local officials, and Howard estimated more than 200 individuals have sent responses in support of the commission to county officials.
The biggest hurdle, Howard said, is educating residents the commission’s purpose. Once learning the commission would give them a chance to vote on unification, support was generated for the endeavor, he said.
But input from county magistrates contacted by The News-Enterprise was mixed.
Magistrate Doug Goodman, whose district represents parts of northern Hardin County, said he has received negative feedback about unification from hundreds compared to small pockets of support.
“It’s just not a good feeling in the north end of the county right now regarding unification,” he said.
Goodman said he is unsure how he will cast his vote for the commission, but he said he fears Radcliff and northern Hardin County may get the “short end of the stick” if a unified government materializes. The county already has attempted a commissioner form of government, which he declared a “flop,” and he said unified government likely would leave parts of the county without proper representation.
Even now, he said, the northern part of the county has failed to secure its rightful share, including state funding for infrastructure improvements tied to the Base Realignment and Closure initiative and a county recycling trailer lobbied for by Goodman, Magistrate Roy Easter and Radcliff City Council.
“We got all this BRAC money and we got pennies in Radcliff,” he said. “We’re sitting right on top of Fort Knox.”
Radcliff Mayor J.J. Duvall has said he will release details today on a public unification forum hosted by the city later this month. Radcliff has been the most openly critical of unification since HCU introduced the plan, and the council approved a formal resolution last year opting out of any future unification plans or discussions.
Magistrate Fred Clem declined to comment on his decision or views about the commission in advance of the first reading, but he said the input he has received from constituents has been decidedly mixed with a larger percentage speaking negatively about unification during face-to-face conversations.
Magistrate Lisa Williams, on the other hand, said she has received an overwhelming share of supportive responses regarding unification, particularly from business owners, Hardin County Chamber of Commerce members and other economically minded people.
“I have been swamped with responses,” she said.
Williams expressed excitement for the possible benefits of unification, including an expanded profile as one of the largest cities in the state.
“Anything that creates jobs, I’m in favor of,” she said.
Williams also believes county officials should make the “progressive” choice of forming the commission and allowing voters to have the final say on unification.
“I think it’s our duty to at least move to the next phase and draft a document,” she said.
Magistrate Garry King said he was “noncommittal” about the creation of the commission but said most of the constituents who have contacted him by email or spoken to him in person have been critical of the idea. He said Tuesday should be interesting.
“I really don’t know right now how it’s going to go,” he said of the vote. “It’s going to surprise me. I think it could be close.”
The initial push for unification by HCU was delayed when officials found a flaw in state legislation that could entrap cities within a unified government even if they voted against it.
With the aid of state legislators representing Hardin County, HCU successfully lobbied to change state law governing unification to ensure cities would have a right to opt out of a unified government if the majority of their residents rejected the charter at the polls. The law also has improved in that it has created a voting bloc for rural Hardin County, Howard said, meaning unification must receive majority support in unincorporated Hardin County to pass.
Howard said he is not concerned about Fiscal Court’s vote.
“I trust our elected representatives to make an informed decision that works best for everybody,” he said.
Marty Finley can be reached at (270) 505-1762 or firstname.lastname@example.org