The News-Enterprise: E’town Council Pans Unification Plan

Majority voice opposition to city’s participation

The following article by Marty Finley first appeared in The News-Enterprise on August 31, 2011. You can see the full, online version here:

Hardin County United could have an uphill battle on its hands as it seeks to convince local municipalities to join in the creation of a unification review commission.

Elizabethtown city officials joined Radcliff City Council in vocal opposition of unification this week, hinting at the city’s possible plans to opt out.

HCU officials have made it clear the plan would not work if at least one of the county’s two major cities does not join.

Elizabethtown Councilman Ron Thomas on Tuesday said he’d lead the charge to present a resolution for the city to opt out of any plan for unification and firmly said he would vote no for any plan to join in the creation of the commission.

“That’s my stance right now,” he said, which was largely echoed by his colleagues.

Thomas said he has heard the presentation, arguments in favor of unification and endorsements by Hardin Circuit Judge Ken Howard and HCU consultant Luke Schmidt, which have leaned on the benefits of a merger.

“I’m certainly not going to vote based on how people feel,” Thomas said, referring to the opinions of Howard and Schmidt.

Thomas said no one in Elizabethtown has led the charge for unification except HCU, making it a one-sided argument. He said he believes the consensus in Elizabethtown and Radcliff is to retain the current structure.

“I think Radcliff wants to maintain its identity,” he said. “I think Elizabethtown wants to maintain its identity.”

Thomas also said none of the cities studied by HCU had two cities of similar size. Of the five cities studied, unification occurred between a county and one dominant city.

Thomas said the comparisons are lacking because HCU does not know how unification would affect Elizabethtown and Radcliff.

Mayor Tim Walker also was critical of the plan and worries about the possibility of Elizabethtown being absorbed into unification if the county voted in favor of it. HCU has said it needs legal clarification from the state to determine if a city’s majority vote to opt out would be respected under the current law even if the county votes to adopt unification. Schmidt has said he would push for an amendment to the legislation to clear up the issue if necessary.

But Walker said he has sought his own legal opinions, most of which ruled Elizabethtown would be absorbed into the unified government if the county voted yes. Walker said he cannot stand by and allow that to happen.

“People who elected us (to represent them) may not have the final say,” Walker said.

Any clarification outside of an amendment would be nothing more than an opinion, Walker added, so he suggested HCU shelve the idea until the Kentucky General Assembly adopts an amendment to flesh out the law.

Councilman Kenny Lewis said he feels HCU is irresponsible in moving forward without fully understanding the law. Lewis said nearly everyone who has approached him has opposed unification and is concerned about the level of unknowns left unaddressed by HCU.

Lewis said he doesn’t believe residents or city councils can make an informed decision.

“You can’t really vote for (something) if it’s what if, what if, what if,” Lewis said.

Councilman Larry Ashlock also has heard little approval for the unification plan.

“For most everybody, it has been unfavorable,” Ashlock said.

Ashlock said he recognizes benefits of the concept, but if it doesn’t lead to real cost savings, it is hard to find any real benefits of a merger.

“The devil is going to be in the details,” he said. “I still have some questions.”

Howard and Schmidt have argued most of the unknowns can be answered only if the commission is formed to legally study unification and its effects locally, but Ashlock said he is not comfortable turning over Elizabethtown’s future government structure to a third-party entity.

“It doesn’t sound to me like the best way to go about it,” he said.

Councilman Marty Fulkerson said HCU’s pitch for unification has fallen flat with him and most of the residents he has dealt with on the issue.

“Bigger government is never more efficient; ask Washington,” Fulkerson said. “I don’t know how you’re going to be more efficient with bigger government.”

And Fulkerson claimed some of HCU’s arguments are misleading. Schmidt has argued the 94 councils, commissions, boards and committees within Hardin County create a considerable amount of duplication, but Fulkerson said developers do not have to deal with multiple planning commissions when they build in Elizabethtown. He also said HCU has failed to show how duplication could be streamlined.

HCU has argued unification would give the area a larger profile for economic development, but Fulkerson said a developer looking at Elizabethtown researches the entire county and surrounding counties because it will not pull its entire workforce from Hardin County.

Fulkerson said he believes Elizabethtown already has a “good spirit of cooperation” with the other cities and the county, and he said they will continue to work together on major issues.

Councilman Tony Bishop said he is keeping an open mind as he learns more about unification and benefits for the community.

Bishop said he is trying to push his personal feelings aside so he can act on what is best for the city and its residents.

But Bishop said most people he has spoken with are against unification, and he expressed some concerns about the impacts.

HCU has said unification would create the third-largest city in the state, but Bishop said other counties and cities are considering unification. Should they unify, he said, the city could end up pushed out of that spot and competing in a similar manner that it does now.

Bishop also was hesitant to place the details of unification into the hands of an appointed commission.

“Once you do that, it’s over,” he said. “It’s pretty much out of the council’s hands.”

Bishop said he plans to speak with elected officials in Jeffersontown and other Louisville suburbs that opted out of the merger of Louisville and Jefferson County in 2000. Bishop said he wants to know if the decision has hurt the cities or if they have found positives in maintaining an independent government.

Councilwoman Edna Berger was the lone proponent of forming the commission. Berger said she believes people are immediately hostile to change because of the fear of what will be lost, but she said people should not discount the idea or immediately throw it out the window.

“I prefer to keep an open mind and believe anything that might help us grow and create jobs is worth looking at,” she said.

Berger said she believes the cities should allow the commission to form and study the concept further before it settles on a verdict.

“We’re all Hardin County and we’re all Kentucky,” she said. “And we all have to work together to help each other.”

But Berger said she would not want the council to cast a vote in favor of the commission until the law is clarified by the state.

HCU already has met with Hardin Fiscal Court and Sonora City Commission urging the creation of the commission. The response among magistrates was mixed. Sonora Mayor Larry Copelin said Sonora officials want to gather reaction from the community before it casts a vote.

Copelin said there still are a lot of questions to ask and education needed so everyone will understand the concept. Once people understand it, he said, the governments can decide what they should do.

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