by Chris Harris
Around 140 people attended Thursday night’s public unveiling of a $35,000 study designed to determine the feasibility of a united city-county government here in Pulaski County.
The tone of the presentation was overwhelmingly positive toward the idea that the area could benefit from a merging of local governments, focusing on several communities — including Athens, Ga., Butte, Mont., and Lexington and Louisville, Ky. — that apparently benefited from a similar unification.
“I think this community is at a real crossroads,” announced Luke Schmidt, president of Louisville firm L.B. Schmidt & Associates, and the man who conducted the study and presented it Thursday at the Somerset-Pulaski County Chamber of Commerce “Business After Hours” event at The Center for Rural Development.
“You have a lot of great things here, a very good quality of life,” he continued. “... I think you have a real question to ask yourselves, and that is: Do we want to take our good local government and make it great? Do we want to bring new opportunities for growth and development and new jobs into the community that we might not get otherwise, unless we consider a change in ... government?
“My recommendation to the community is, I think unified government, if it’s carefully crafted, carefully considered, and properly implemented ... can, in fact, bring some benefits to the community,” he added. “If you draft a poorly-drafted plan, it won’t work. But if you really get involved, stay on it, and take the time and put together a really good plan, I think the opportunity exists to really move this community to the next level.”
Schmidt specified that this is because it gives the community “the ability to speak with one voice” in Frankfort and Washington; because clashes between local governments — and as Schmidt alluded to multiple times, the Pulaski County government and City of Somerset have had their share over the last year, particularly over occupational tax distribution — can potentially drive away businesses looking to locate here; and becoming the third-largest community in the state in terms of population.
Schmidt said that he saw only two disadvantages to a merger: the loss of USDA loans due to population thresholds (which would take place if the city reached second-class status with a population of 20,000 — which, Schmidt said, has been a stated goal of Somerset Mayor Eddie Girdler anyway), and potential loss of community identity, which Schmidt also downplayed, as “it’s not like the complexion of the community will just dry up and disappear,” as he put it.
The results of the study are available at www.spcunited.com. SPCU (Somerset-Pulaski County United) is the group made up of numerous local citizens and businesspersons who pushed for the feasibility study to take place.
The study was just research; any unification of local governments would have to be voted upon by Pulaski County citizens, and the process could take years if it ever gets off the ground at all. Schmidt stressed that without participation by the City of Somerset, the plan wouldn’t work.
To date, Mayor Eddie Girdler and the Somerset City Council have been resistant to working with those conducting the study.
Pat Bourne was one councilor who attended the Thursday meeting. He said he hadn’t “established an opinion” on the matter but was just there as a citizen to learn more.
“It didn’t tell me anything that I hadn’t already thought of,” he said of the presentation. “I don’t know where this thing’s going or if they’re going to continue doing research on it or not.”
Bill Leslie of the Burnside City Council was in attendance too. He didn’t expect a unified government situation to ever transpire given Somerset’s opposition, nor did he think it was a good idea for his own city.
“No, I don’t,” he said when asked if he thought unified government would be in Burnside’s best interests. “We would lose our identity as Burnside. ... We have these individual forms of government because that’s what we chose. If we’re going to merge, why not merge all the states? Do away with all local governments? No, that’s not the way to do it.”
Other officials had a more favorable reaction, particularly those representing the county government. The Pulaski County Fiscal Court, unlike the Somerset City Council, opted to help fund a third of the cost of the study.
“I think personally that we need to look into bettering our county,” said Fifth District Magistrate Mike Strunk. “... I think we need to look into (the merger plan) more. From what I heard tonight, yeah, I think it could be the best thing for our county.”
“My take as a magistrate is that I feel like we owe it to the county to look into this,” said Third District Magistrate Glenn Maxey. “... We have talked to these people a couple of times before. (The presentation) did shed light on a couple of different things I didn’t realize, like some of the cities that had gone into (a similar situation).”
Judge-Executive Barty Bullock was present Thursday night and said a lot of “good questions” were asked and answered.
“I think as elected officials, it’s our responsibility to look at every option to see if there’s something out there that’s better for the people of the county,” he said. “It’s something I can’t do or the mayor can’t do on his own. It has to go to a public vote. We as officials would abide by whatever the people vote for.”
Tiffany Bourne, Community Development Director with the county government, said that streamlining government would create less competition over financial resources.
“It is hard enough to compete with other counties and states for grant money without having to compete with our local cities,” she said. “No matter who the voice is, we need to speak as one voice.”
Bobby Clue, executive director of the Somerset-Pulaski County Chamber of Commerce, said that Schmidt’s presentation was “solid” and provided a lot of good information.
“The jury’s still out as far as we’re concerned,” he said. “We (the Chamber) are going to go back and meet as a board and we’re going to truly review what we’ve seen tonight. As soon as we do that, hopefully we’ll be able to come up with some conclusions on how we truly feel about united government.”
Clue said that having lived in Lexington, which merged with Fayette County decades ago, he saw lots of positives and very few negatives in that community. He noted that it’s difficult to tell if all of the developments Schmidt pointed out that occurred in other unified communities happened because of a merger similar to what’s being proposed in Pulaski County.
“We’re cautiously optimistic,” he said.
Numerous other individuals not in a public office of some kind also came to the meeting to hear what Schmidt had to say, and came away with a collectively mixed reaction.
Patty Ping of Childers Financial Services was all for the plan she heard about on Thursday night.
“I think it’s a great thing, long overdue,” she said. “I think there’s a lot of waste, a lot of repetition (in government). It would make things much simpler for us as citizens with what they’re trying to do to draw in industry and keep the population here, and even bring in new population. ... I think (the study) was very informative, especially if you have an open mind.”
Ross Rutt, director of operations for Blackboard Student Services, didn’t share the same optimism.
“My biggest issue is that I think the priority of the county is job growth ... and I just don’t see where any unified government at this point in time shows any data that it would improve net job adds,” he said. “My concern is that I see a lot of folks as public officials, representatives of the community organizing around this as opposed to job growth and that just sort of perplexes me. ... I believe from an efficiency perspective (the plan) makes sense. I just believe that if we really want to improve our community, it’s going to be about focusing on really bringing some real jobs in. That’s what’s driving the issues with our community, like drug use and poverty.”
Real estate appraiser John Haney said that a unified government could be a “great step forward” for the community, and that the presentation raised a lot of intriguing questions for him.
“(The study) didn’t sway me either way,” he said. “My opinion has been that I’ve been on board with the merger or the prospect of looking into it since Day 1.”
According to Dave Weddle of Wellhead Energy Systems — the man whose Progress Somerset group successfully led a drive to make Somerset “wet” with alcohol sales in 2012 — it’s all just speculation unless Somerset city leaders indicate that they’re on board.
“It’s really impractical to do this without Somerset being fully engaged in the unification process,” he said. “... You’d have to assume that if the city (voting base) comes back and keeps things as they are (in the upcoming election), that would be a strong point on them saying they’re happy with the way things are.
“I think any place that doesn’t look at change every day ... will probably fall behind,” added Weddle. “There are real, positive attributes to looking (at a unified government plan), but again, the devil is in the details.”