The town’s slogan says that “everything’s better in Burnside.” Perhaps “less controversial” should be added to that list as well.
Almost two weeks after a contentious appearance by Somerset-Pulaski County United (SPCU) — a collection of community leaders spearheading a study to determine the feasibility of a merged city-county government — before the Somerset City Council, the group took their presentation on the road to Burnside.
Besides a warmer welcome from city leadership, the biggest difference between the special called meeting in front of the Burnside City Council on Friday and the Somerset appearance was that SPCU wasn’t in search of any money — just goodwill.
“We have good government here in this community,” said Chris Girdler of SPCU, one of Kentucky’s state senators. “All we are asking is for the opportunity to see if options exist to turn good into great. ... We’re all in this thing together. What’s good for Burnside is good for Somerset. What’s good for Somerset would be good for Eubank.”
For one thing, even if the council was going to take an action — which was never the plan — they couldn’t. Only two councilors, Dwayne Sellers and Bill Leslie, were present for the Friday afternoon meeting, meaning there wasn’t a quorum. Still, since Girdler and fellow SPCU members John Adams, a local attorney, and Leah Taylor, president of the Somerset-Pulaski County Chamber of Commerce, were present, Burnside Mayor Ron Jones gave them a chance to make their pitch anyway.
Girdler led off by saying SPCU wanted to “dispel any rumors” that might be going around about the group’s intentions — rumors “out of uncertainty, out of discomfort, maybe out of fear,” as he put it. Girdler stressed that SUPC is not actively recommending a merged government, which would allow for one governing body to oversee every community in the county that could opt into such a plan.
Instead, the group is merely wanting to do an in-depth study to see if such an idea would even be feasible or beneficial for Pulaski County and its residents.
“What we are recommending is that we have an opportunity to see what options exist out there,” said Girdler. “We are simply asking to conduct a study to see how our government is functioning, to see what potential opportunities may exist. At the end of the day, the people of this community as a whole are the ones who will decide.”
Part of the controversy around the study has been SUPC’s plan to ask both Somerset and Pulaski County governments for aid in funding the $35,000 effort. Girdler said he respects concerns about using taxpayer money for that purpose. However, he noted that when people ask why should local municipalities be approached about something that can be paid for privately, he has a reason at the ready.
“When this was being first discussed, we thought, ‘Well, we’re just going to fund this ourselves, raise the money privately, conduct the study, and then bring the issue out and tell all the local forms of government what it says,’” said Girdler. “Well, as you can imagine, more than likely if we did something like that, people are going to say this is a biased study, it’s not objective, it only serves one purpose. So we felt it appropriate to approach the two entities that would be affected by this the most, so to speak ... and ask each entity to fund a third of the study, and we as a committee would raise the remaining third privately. We wanted to give them the opportunity to have a vested interest in what we’re doing.
“It’s a public-private partnership,” he added. “It happens every day in communities across Kentucky.”
When SPCU approached Somerset City Council two weeks ago, Mayor Eddie Girdler quickly shot down the notion of the city paying for any part of the study, telling the group, “... don’t ask for money” when they requested to be put on the April 22 meeting agenda. “You want to do a study, do it yourself. Don’t ask the taxpayers to do your dirty work,” he added.
The fiscal court was more receptive, with Judge-Executive Barty Bullock saying that SPCU had the court’s “full support.” The court did not make any final decisions on funding for the study, however, and may address it again at their meeting this week.
Girdler said that if neither entity chooses to chip in finding, SPCU would fund the study entirely on their own. Burnside, however, was not asked to contribute to the needed amount of money.
If the study showed that a unified government would be a good idea and the people of each community throughout the county voted to be a part of it, 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.
Eubank, because its boundary extends into Lincoln County, would be prohibited by state law from participating in a unified government. Schmidt said he hopes some kind of agreement could be worked out so Eubank could feel a part of a united county government.
Any city can opt out of being a part of a unified government, but that means giving up a seat at the table.
One advantage of merging, according to Taylor, is that when industries looking to locate in the area see Somerset with a population of just over 11,000 (according to 2010 census numbers), they can be scared off, whereas by merging with the county, Somerset would become a much more populous town of over 63,000, and more likely to draw interest from the business community.
None of it takes place without a trip by citizens of Pulaski County to the ballot, however.
“This is an issue that will go on the ballot and the people will decide this,” said Girdler, “the most pure form of democracy.”
Girdler said the study would examine how a merged government would affect each local community. The group would then present the findings to each community so they could be better informed.
Sellers said that at this time, he would not be in favor of a unified government, “the reason being that Burnside would have such a small voice in it. ... I don’t know that the people of this town would want that. However, he added, “I’m open minded and I’m anxious to hear everything you’ve got to say, and your study, because I might could learn something. ... I don’t feel like I could ever be for it unless you prove me wrong, and I will give you that chance.”
Responded Girdler, “That’s all I ask for.”
Jones said that he had questions about the plan and wanted to give SUPC a chance to come and explain more about it. The Burnside mayor has expressed mixed feelings in prior interviews about the unified government plan. In an April 7 article in the Commonwealth Journal, Jones said that “from a taxpayer’s standpoint ... I would be in favor of more services, better services, and less cost to me” as a result of the potential merge, but in an April 11 article, Jones said that he would “fight them tooth and nail if they try to take our identity.”
Following Friday’s meeting with SPCU, Jones still maintained both those views and remained undecided on whether or not to fully support a unified government paradigm.
“I don’t know,” Jones told the Commonwealth Journal on Friday “I’m leaning in any direction at all. I’m open-minded. There’s so much about it, I don’t even know what I don’t know.”
That said, if Burnside is to participate, its representation remains key for Jones.
“It’s depending on how they set (the commission) up,” he said. “Do they set it up with one member per thousand population, or do they set it up one member per town, and one vote carries the same weight? Otherwise Pulaski County will have a bunch of votes, Somerset will have a bunch of votes, and for Science Hill, Ferguson Burnside, it won’t matter what we vote. Right now, we can run our own little town the way we want to.”