By HEATHER TOMLINSON, CJ Staff Writer Commonwealth Journal
The Somerset-Pulaski County United group believes a merged government may be a better way to run the City of Somerset and Pulaski County.
But Somerset Mayor Eddie Girdler on Monday let group members know he vehemently disagrees with the effort.
Girdler during Monday’s Somerset City Council meeting declined to allow the group to speak about their effort, which came to light last Thursday during a press conference announcing the group’s intent to spearhead a study to determine whether a merged city-county government is feasible.
Girdler, calling the legal status of Somerset-Pulaski County United into question, said the city cannot legally help fund any study the organization may want to carry out. He also took issue with the apparent suddenness of the effort.
“A request sent only last week, while many of us were out of town,” said Girdler. “ ... Most agencies or businesses will submit a request and wait for response.
“And rather than waiting for the city to respond ... they decided to come on their own,” Girdler added.
The council read and unanimously passed a resolution on Monday rejecting any future proposals for a unified government, and the resolution states that the city will not provide any funding for the study.
The resolution likened a merged government to a “welfare system whereby the hard-earned assets of the citizens of Somerset are taken from the citizens of Somerset of which 70 percent are on fixed income and given to others that do not have the legal or moral right to obtain ...”
The resolution continues by stating utility rates would increase, jobs would be lost, and “ ... all major and future projects will cease due to uncertain future condition (s).”
Several of the councilors agreed a merged government would not hold any benefits for the city, which they pointed out has grown its assets over the decades and profits from operations such as a natural gas distribution system, a water treatment plant that provides water wholesale to water companies across the county, and a sewage plant.
“Our citizens ... made this investment ... there must be a reason for establishing a municipality,” said Councilor Tom Eastham. “Now the citizens of Somerset are reaping the benefits of that. I don’t think there are any changes that can be made to benefit the city of Somerset.
“We are very unique and the uniqueness of our city mandates we protect the investment of our citizens,” Tom Eastham added.
Tom Eastham noted that he would consider supporting a study should a majority of his constituents support the effort. But he said he hasn’t heard those sentiments.
Councilor Jerry Wheeldon, along with Councilor John Ricky Minton and Councilor Jim Mitchell, echoed those thoughts and said they don’t feel a merged government would benefit the city.
“I don’t think the city’s got one thing to gain by switching governments,” Wheeldon said.
Councilor Jimmy Eastham said he’s uncomfortable with the division between city and county — something that has been exacerbated by the recent Somerset-Pulaski County EMS funding issues.
“Dividing lines is what I don’t like to see,” Jimmy Eastham said, who noted he’d be willing to sit down and discuss the issue. “ ... We’re all in this together.”
Jimmy Eastham pointed out that many county residents may look at annexation into the city negatively, but he said a merged government may accomplish similar things.
“I’m a huge proponent of annexation, which seems to me is kind of like a bad word,” Jimmy Eastham said. “I’m having a hard time understanding not being for annexation but being for consolidating the government.”
Several councilors, including Pat Bourne, Donna Hunley, and Linda Stringer, declined to give an opinion on the issue, stating they’d rather wait until a formal presentation is given by Somerset-Pulaski County United.
But Bourne did note that the issue seemed to appear with no warning to the city.
“This seems to have come up all of a sudden ... it just hit us all at once without any warning whatsoever,” Bourne said. “It would’ve been nice if we could’ve had a little bit of time to prepare for this.”
Jim Rutherford said he will listen to the group’s presentation, but he wondered aloud what spurred the effort to bring about a merged city-county government.
“Either ... the EMS problem precipitated this committee ... or it was already in the planning stages before the EMS problem (came) forward,” said Rutherford. “I’m confused ... If we’re not doing things effectively as a city and a county government, this should’ve been brought to our attention a long time ago.
“You all are well-organized and well voiced and well-versed in the needs (of the community),” Rutherford told the group. “It can’t be just about EMS.”
The group formally requested Monday that they be placed on the council agenda for its next meeting on April 22.
Group members are expected to also appear in Pulaski County Fiscal Court this morning to ask that the county help fund the study — something the city is declining to do, as per the resolution.
But Girdler had some final words for the group members.
“In two weeks, don’t ask for money,” said Girdler. “ ... Don’t put the city council on the spot without doing your job. We’ve got too many intelligent people (in the group) that’s ... done everything wrong.”
Girdler said Somerset-Pulaski County United, which has about 60 members, shouldn’t ask any government for help in funding the study.
“Surely to goodness you can take $500 apiece and do it yourself,” Girdler said. “Why ask the city and county for any money? You want to do a study, do it yourself. Don’t ask the taxpayers to do your dirty work.
“So if you’re going to come back to us, you better come back with enough information and documentation or you won’t be put on the agenda again,” Girdler continued. “Does that make it clear to you all? You all are intelligent. You know better than this.”
Rutherford took issue with the verbal lashing.
“I’m going to go ahead and say it,” Rutherford said. “The mayor shouldn’t have scolded you all. You’re good people. You believe in what you believe in. The mayor shouldn’t have scolded you.”
“I disagree with you but that’s fine,” Girdler said. “ ... I don’t like groups coming in here that’s not well prepared and asking to destroy the city. I’ll scold anybody who’s (intending) to destroy the city.”
“You go ahead and keep on scolding people ... I don’t agree with it,” said Rutherford.