by Bill Mardis
Unifying governments in Pulaski County is a citizen-driven opportunity to streamline government through unification and is not involved in politics.
This was the central theme of a study released late yesterday to the Commonwealth Journal, and then to the public at a Somerset-Pulaski County Chamber of Commerce “Business After Hours” event at The Center for Rural Development.
The 10-month study, commissioned by Somerset-Pulaski County United (SPCU), a group of about 150 civic and business leaders, was conducted by Luke Schmidt, president of Louisville-based consulting firm L.B. Schmidt & Associates.
“Neither SPCU nor locally elected officials, only voters can approve or reject unification,” Schmidt emphasized from the start. “We have never said ... we will never say existing governments in Pulaski County are bad, nor does the study reflect negativity,” he insisted.
The study insists unification presents an opportunity to build a bigger and better community. “The opportunity exists to make good local government great with everyone focused on a common purpose –– to grow the community and create new jobs,” Schmidt said. “For communities that have unified, not one has dissolved its unified government to return to the former form of duplicative government, he related.
“This study provides a foundation for SPCU as we begin to consider both the positives and negatives that might accrue to our community if the community wishes to unify the various local governments, said SPCU chairman Brook Ping. “It is an educational process,” he added.
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. Schmidt said Eubank could enter into an interlocal agreement and be a participating city with unified governments.
The sense of community would remain ... Nancy would be Nancy, Science Hill would be Science Hill, Burnside would be Burnside, both Ping and Schmidt emphasized.
At present, Pulaski County has 56 local government jurisdictions providing services to 63,000 people. Greater Pulaski County has an additional 32 boards and commissions for a total of 88 government-related entities, the study noted.
Annually, it costs $27.7 million in general fund revenues and a workforce of 581 employees to provide local government services in all of Pulaski County, the study pointed out. 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.
Typically, no public workers from unifying jurisdictions are laid off as the result of merger. The work force is reduced by normal attrition, the study says.
“No one is saying unified governments will save money, only that money will be spent more efficiently,” said Schmidt.
Unification will not move school boundaries; it will not change local option areas, and with combined budgets, tax rates usually stay the same, Schmidt pointed out.
Schmidt and Ping explained that the unified government law in Kentucky has been modified to allow individual cities to remain unchanged.
“For example,” Schmidt said, “If voters in Science Hill rejected unification the city would not change. If voters in Somerset and unincorporated areas voted against the plan, unification is dead,” he noted.
“The most important part of the study, and perhaps the hardest part, will be for all citizens to begin thinking, not only outside the box, but also outside of traditional boundary lines,” said Schmidt. “The opportunity exists to build a bigger and better community,” he added. Economic development officials in unified communities confirm that having one central government is much more attractive to business and industrial clients considering investing in a community, the study said.
Somerset and Ferguson already have opted out of the plan and “ ... without Somerset unification won’t work,” Schmidt conceded.
According to law, to start a unification process, 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.
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.
Any type of merged governments must be approved by voters of Pulaski County. Ping has said several times that unification is a slow process and successful merger could take up to four years.