Kentucky Enquirer: NKY forum focuses on merging gov’t services

The following article by Scott Wartman appeared in the Kentucky Enquirer on October 11, 2011. The full, online version can be seen here: nky.cincinnati.com/article/AB/20111011/NEWS0103/110120339/NKY-forum-focuses-merging-gov-t-services?odyssey=tab|topnews|text|News

COVINGTON, KY – In 1872, Covington and Newport considered merging.

That’s the first newspaper reference to local government mergers in Northern Kentucky, according to Northern Kentucky University history professor Paul Tenkotte.

Most cities have opted to remain independent – Campbell County has 15 cities and Kenton has 18 – but the idea of consolidation never left the minds of local leaders.

Tenkotte and other experts at a forum Tuesday night at the Carnegie Visual and Performing Arts Center discussed the economic benefits and challenges of merging governments and services. Some said other areas, such as Louisville, gained economic development advantages by consolidating governments.

The answer to why Northern Kentucky has so many cities lies with the Great Depression and World War II, Tenkotte said.

The leaders of many Kenton County suburban cities in the 1920s, such as Fort Mitchell and Park Hills, envisioned being annexed by Covington, he said. But the Works Progress Administration in the Great Depression built infrastructure in these cities, and the World War II generation’s volunteerism sustained the small cities.

“The WPA … provided funds on a cost-sharing basis to build city buildings, school sidewalks, sewers, water treatment plants, you name it, and the suburbs took advantage of that and got great infrastructure built,” Tenkotte said. “So then we go into World War II. After World War II, the suburbs can take advantage of what Tom Brokaw and others called the Greatest Generation, a generation that was very involved with civic engagement … and they looked and said we don’t need Covington anymore.”

Rising pension costs for cities has many looking at ways to save money. That might mean the merging of services, Crestview Hills Mayor Paul Meier said.

“If something drastic doesn’t happen with that pension system, we’re going to have to look at least at the consolidation of services,” Meier said. “That’s one of the things our city has done. We don’t have our own fire department. We contract that out. We contract the police department. I think you will find that in a lot of places going forward.”

The consolidation of city and county governments doesn’t happen often in the United States, Suzanne Leland, a political science professor with the Urban Institute of the University of North Carolina, told the audience Tuesday night.

Only 40 city-county consolidated governments exist in the United States, she said, including Lexington and Louisville. When they get proposed, 85 percent get defeated at the ballot box, Leland said.

Most city-county mergers happen with areas that have a populations of 100,000-300,000, she said, and succeeded when the campaign stressed the economic development value over the government efficiency, Leland said.

The forum Tuesday night featured people who worked elsewhere in the state on consolidation.

Some leaders in Hardin County, which has a population of 105,000, have proposed consolidating the government of the county and the cities, which includes Elizabethtown and five other municipal governments.

In addition to less duplication, the merging of governments would give Hardin County more clout, said Luke Schmidt, a consultant who is working on the proposed Hardin County consolidation. A unified government in Hardin County would make it the third-largest city in the state.

“Because of that, economic development will be more focused – more singularly focused – and we expect good job creation to come from that,” Schmidt said.

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