By CHRIS HARRIS, CJ Staff Writer Commonwealth Journal
The next step toward a potential merged city-county government is now in progress, as work has begun on the key feasibility study that will determine whether or not citizens could benefit from such a development.
The organization responsible for the move to look at a unified government, Somerset-Pulaski County United (SPCU), announced Friday that efforts to conduct the study have started and are ongoing.
“We’re glad to get this study underway as we believe that we will learn a lot about how our local government jurisdictions function today,” said Brook Ping, SPCU chairman. “At the same time, we want to learn more about unified government – how it operates – and see if there are any benefits to introducing this concept to Pulaski County.”
The study is being funded by a grant from Pulaski County Fiscal Court and by the members of SPCU. It’s expected to take about four months to complete.
In April, SPCU introduced its plan to conduct a study that would attempt to measure the possible benefits of combing Pulaski County Government with the individual city governments: Somerset, Burnside, or any such municipality that would opt in.
If the study turned up positive results, the county’s citizens would have the chance to vote on whether or not to go through with the unified government proposal.
Under the plan, 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.
Under state law, a unified government would not affect school districts, existing taxing districts in the county, or local option areas. It would not alter boundaries of precincts and legislative districts. Unified government, if approved by voters, would vacate current political positions and establish a new governing structure.
A new Somerset-Pulaski County unified government would create Kentucky’s third largest city with a population of 63,700. It would be the first unified government of its kind in Kentucky. Metro governments in Louisville and Lexington were created under different statutes, although in principle the way they operate would be similar to a merged government here.
“The members of SPCU want to make it very clear: we are not endorsing unified government at this time,” said Ping. “We need to learn more about it first so that we will feel comfortable in the end with whatever recommendations that we might bring to the community.”
The plan met with different reactions from some of the key figures involved. When SPCU approached the Somerset City Council to ask for assistance funding the study — expected to cost about $35,000 — they were rebuffed by Mayor Eddie Girdler.
The Pulaski County Fiscal Court, however — headed up by Judge-Executive Barty Bullock — agreed to chip in the requested $11,667 during a late April meeting and proved more receptive to SPCU’s message.
“This study will provide invaluable information and data to the entire community,” said Bullock. “We want to learn more about this to see if unified government makes sense for the community.”
The study will include detailed interviews with elected officials and key staff in each of the county’s incorporated cities, along with those in county government.
“This study will not merge local governments. The study is merely one of many steps that the community may elect to take towards unified government,” said Luke Schmidt, consultant to SPCU from the firm L.B. Schmidt & Associates, LLC. “In the end, only the voters can decide if the local government jurisdictions should merge, and they will do so only if a formal plan (charter) of unified government is developed by an officially sanctioned Unified Government Commission and presents its plan to the voters.
“The study simply provides all parties with the information that will be needed to make informed decisions,” he added.
SPCU’s members represent all segments of the community: agriculture, business and industry, education, elected officials, health care, industry, law enforcement and public safety, professionals, religion and transportation.
Schmidt will be contacting local officials soon in order to start the examination of the local government jurisdictions, according to a statement released Friday by SPCU.
“We look forward to sharing all of the findings with the community as soon as the study has been completed,” said Ping.