Commonwealth Journal

April 4, 2013

Calling for a Unified Pulaski

Community leaders want to study feasibility feasibility of united government for city-county

BY BILL MARDIS, Editor Emeritus and KEN SHMIDHEISER, Managing Editor
Commonwealth Journal

Somerset —  

A group of about 60 community leaders, clustered as Somerset-Pulaski County United (SPCU), is embarking on a study to determine if a consolidated or united government in Pulaski County would be more efficient and more responsive to the county’s 63,000 residents.
“This is a study, nothing more,” said SPCU chair and local developer Brook Ping. He stressed that simply conducting the study does not mean any local governments are unifying. Under Kentucky law only voters can determine whether local governments consolidate. And that will only occur after a formal plan is developed by an official Unified Government Commission whose members would be appointed by participating city councils and Pulaski Fiscal Court.
The unified government proposal was unveiled during a press conference held yesterday morning at The Center for Rural Development.
Briefly, the plan as explained by consultant L.B. Schmidt, president of Louisville-based L.B. Schmidt & Associates, SPCU would complete a study in about four months and present its findings to local governmental bodies.
Then, 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. “That means they won’t have a seat at the table,” observed Schmidt.
Under state law, a unified government would not affect school districts, existing taxing districts in the county, or local option areas. It would not alter boundaries of precincts and legislative districts. Unified government, if approved by voters, would vacate current political positions and establish a new governing structure.
A new Somerset-Pulaski County unified government would create Kentucky’s third largest city with a population of 63,700. It would be the first unified government of its kind in Kentucky. Metro governments in Louisville and Lexington were created under different statutes, although in principle the way they operate would be similar to a merged government here, according to Schmidt.
SPCU members believe that a government here passing the 50,000 population threshold would get “looks” from businesses and industries interested in locating in larger communities. They believe it would enhance the community’s economic development efforts and assist in creating new jobs.
“A unified government would greatly increase the county’s bonding capacity,” Schmidt said, noting that the City of Somerset is approaching its bonding limits.
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.
Ping pointed out that unification, if approved by voters, is a slow-moving procedure. He estimated it would take at least four years.
“Speaking with one voice will make it easier to provide for the community’s needs,” assured State Senator Chris Girdler, who spoke in favor of the study.
“This is a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity for all of us to stop and do three things: (1) Examine how our current local government jurisdictions work by identifying strengths and weaknesses; (2) find out how unified governments have worked in other communities around the country; and (3) consider whether unified government might work for us.”
“I look forward to joining my fellow citizens in this process during the next few months as the study takes shape and I encourage everyone to keep an open mind,” said Girdler, who serves as deputy district director for Congressman Hal Rogers.
SPCU spokespersons said recent publicized disagreements between Somerset and Pulaski County had little or nothing to do with formation of the study group.
The first key to success of the planned study is funding. Ping said SPCU plans to raise a third of the necessary $35,000. Somerset City Council and Pulaski Fiscal Court will each be asked to contribute a third of the money next during their regular meetings next Monday and Tuesday, respectively, Schmidt said.
The recently formed SPCU is unique in its scope. Said one observer: “I’ve never seen such a diverse organization in Pulaski County.”
SPCU’s members represent all segments of the community. It includes agriculture, business and industry, education, elected officials, health care, law enforcement and public safety, professionals, religion and transportation.