The biggest issue at Wednesday's special-called meeting of Pulaski County Fiscal Court was nowhere on the agenda.
Moved from the second Tuesday due to scheduling conflicts, most of the meeting was devoted to departmental reports. It was after the meeting adjourned that all five magistrates jointly announced their opposition to Mayor Alan Keck's proposal to annex "unincorporated Somerset" into the city limits proper.
Mayor Keck first pitched the nascent plan to county officials at their June 25 meeting, the morning after he'd advised his own city council of his intentions. At the time, few details were available — with the mayor asserting that he wanted to start a dialogue about increasing Somerset's population to 20,000 in order to further spur economic growth. Following that meeting, most magistrates were taking a wait-and-see approach to the issue.
As more details have begun to emerge, particularly with the release of a map with the affected areas, the magistrates decided it was time to collectively announce their opposition.
"We are all in agreement that we are against the annexation," District 4 Magistrate Mark Ranshaw said on behalf of the group. "We want to encourage everybody in the affected areas to come out and voice their opinions. We understand that it's not only going to hurt the affected area but it will hurt everybody in the county indirectly."
While Mayor Keck has tried to keep the emphasis on the idea that everyone can benefit from economic growth, the "hurt" magistrates are referring to involves higher tax rates for residents potentially annexed into Somerset and loss of corresponding tax revenue for Pulaski County as a whole. That loss of revenue would most likely be made up either through budget cuts or increasing county tax rates.
"We encourage everybody to get involved, whether they are for or against it," Ranshaw continued. "This is one of the biggest issues this county has seen in a very long time."
Ranshaw is directly affected as he lives in Southern Hills. The proposed area affecting District 4 encompasses enough of East Ky. 80 to include the "Garner property" which is currently being eyed for development as a new industrial park.
In a Facebook post prior to Wednesday's Fiscal Court meeting, Ranshaw stated he might have to rethink the county's purchase of that property if it comes to cutting SPEDA (Somerset Pulaski Economic Authority] funding in order "to offset loss of revenue to the city."
In District 1, represented by Magistrate Jason Turpen, the affected areas include residents living within the Ky. 914 circle such as portions of Oak Hill and Slate Branch.
In District 5, represented by Magistrate Mike Strunk, the affected areas include Green Meadows, South Ridge and South Fork subdivisions. Strunk had noted last month that some Green Meadows residents could support annexation if it involved sewer service. However, those types of utilities have not been directly addressed as yet.
District 3 Magistrate Jimmy Wheeldon said the affected area he represents includes Ky. 39 from Eagle's Nest up to Buck Creek and then out toward Shopville.
"I think it actually affects mine [District 2] very little from what I've seen," Magistrate Mike Wilson noted, but he's as firm in his opinion as his colleagues.
The magistrates noted that the map currently circulating is a tentative one, with Ranshaw noting that Barnesburg Road hadn't been included before the map was released Tuesday.
"There are still other areas that [Keck] discussed earlier that could still be included," he asserted Wednesday morning.
According to Turpen, who had met separately with Mayor Keck, earlier discussions also included Patterson Branch and Ferry Road. In a message posted on Facebook later Wednesday afternoon, Turpen said that while he can't blame the mayor for wanting to improve Somerset, he feels that annexation is the wrong way to go about it.
"For the first time since I have been in office the city and county have had a great working relationship and we have gotten so much accomplished in such a short time," Turpen wrote. "The Mayor has told me that he didn’t want to do this if it was not what the residents wanted. I would bet that if they polled all landowners and residents in just the areas that are being affected it would be close to 80-90 percent against. And I wouldn’t be surprised if that number was higher. I still think you can grow the city by concentrating on small areas that show interest and sell the idea to them.…
"I believe this annexation is driving a wedge between the City and County. A strong and growing Pulaski County means more people working and spending money in Somerset. A strong Pulaski County feeds a strong Somerset. I think you will see growth in Somerset through new investments and as Somerset continues to improve you will have more interest in residents wanting to be annexed into the city. This annexation talk has put everyone back in the US against THEM mentality and it is not good for us as a community. I feel confident that in the end the Mayor and City Council will make the right decision and stop this before it gets started…," he stated.
Legally, Fiscal Court has little say in this particular annexation process. Should Somerset City Council ultimately pass an ordinance to get that process underway, the magistrates have discussed the possibility of formally passing a resolution in opposition.
"If and when it's ever presented to Council, we'll decide what we want to do then," Ranshaw said.
"We need to," Wheeldon added.
In a separate statement (to be published on the Opinion Page in Thursday's edition of the Commonwealth Journal), Pulaski County Judge-Executive Steve Kelley expressed his own reservations about the "non consensual annexation" while urging everyone to continue the forward momentum for the entire community as a whole.
In other business, Fiscal Court:
• approved two contracts for the Pulaski County Detention Center. The first presented by Jailer Anthony McCollum would allow the Somerset- Pulaski County EMS to provide services which could be billed at the Medicare rate rather than private insurance rate. The second would renew the county's agreement with Telmate for inmate telephone services. McCollum noted that the rates wouldn't change but the company has offered a $50,000 technology grant each year.
• authorized the Pulaski County Animal Shelter to apply for a Kentucky spay and neuter grant, which requires a county match. Animal Control Officer Adam Scales noted that last year's grant covered procedures for 160 dogs and cats.
• approved the road work request with additions of speed limit signs for Doc Nichols Landing (15 mph) in District 5 and Elihu Cabin Hollow Road (25 mph) in District 4.
• heard presentations about events at Pulaski County Park on July 20. The morning will start out with the 2019 Mud, Mayhem & Fun Lake Cumberland Obstacle 5K Challenge with proceeds going to organizations such as the local American Cancer Society chapter and the Pulaski County Alzheimers Respite Center. Then around 1 p.m., the park will host its 5th Annual Christmas in July Festival.