Commonwealth Journal

April 11, 2013

County offices would remain intact under unified government

By BILL MARDIS, Editor Emeritus
Commonwealth Journal

Somerset —  

The Kentucky General Assembly has made laws easier for cities and counties to consolidate governments, but at this point, despite several tries, no unified governments under these amended laws exist in the state.
An effort to study benefits and efficiencies of a unified government by a group of county leaders clustered as Somerset-Pulaski County United (SPCU) was announced a little more than a week ago. At this point it has generated a lot of questions, considerable support and some wide-open snarling and growling.
A question frequently asked is what effect a unified city-county government would have on constitutional offices such as county judge-executive, sheriff, jailer, county clerk and magistrate? Would their duties change? Would they continue to draw their generous salaries?
Laura Ross, legal services counsel for the Kentucky League of Cities, said it would depend on what type of unified government is established.
Under amended laws, there are two types of merged city-county governments –- charter county governments and unified local governments, Ross said. A unified local government plan apparently would be submitted for voter approval at the end of an optimistic study being proposed by SPCU.
  Statutes for a unified local government are more detailed and stringent than for a charter county government, Ross said.
  And, yes, according to Ross, all offices provided for in the Kentucky constitution and local government employees would be retained in a unified local government. Duties of constitutional officeholders could be changed but it appears they would continue to draw their constitutionally mandated salaries.
  In Pulaski County, salaries paid to county officials are no small potatoes.
  When Pulaski County’s population exceeded 60,000 in the 2010 federal census, state law changed the pay group for four elected officials and gave each an annual pay raise of about $6,800. Annual salaries for Judge-executive Barty Bullock, Sheriff Todd Wood, Jailer Mike Harris and County Clerk Ralph Troxtell increased for each from $92,412.43 to $99,312.05, effective at the beginning of their current terms. Salaries are set by law and they have to take it.
  Magistrates on Pulaski Fiscal Court set their own salaries. Each of the five magistrate makes $30,000 a year in addition to $3,600 in undocumented expense money. The office of magistrate, like constable, is constitutional and can’t be abolished without a constitutional amendment.
  Kentucky Revised Statues relating to charter county government has little or nothing to say about employees and positions, Ross noted.
If the proposed study is funded and consolidation of governments deemed feasible, 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. 
The commission would propose a new government structure to be presented to voters in the county. If approved, existing governments would be disbanded and the new governmental structure put in place. Committee leaders say implementation of a city-county government would take up to four years, or more.
Somerset City Council has vowed by resolution to avoid unification by any means, including legal action. Burnside Mayor Ron Jones mentioned “uprising” if anybody messes with its boundaries. Science Hill and Ferguson are seeking more information about the plan. Eubank straddles the Pulaski-Lincoln county line and would not be a part of the unification.