The News-Enterprise: Hardinopolis? HCU Recommends Local Govts Unify

This article first appeared in The News-Enterprise on July 29, 2011.  The full, online version can be found here: http://www.thenewsenterprise.com/content/hardinopolis-hcu-recommends-local-governments-unify

By Marty Finley

Hardin County United recommends local residents pursue a unified form of government that would offer the six incorporated cities a chance to merge with Hardin County government under statutes established in 2006 by the Kentucky General Assembly.

Should consolidation of government services occur, the area would emerge as the state’s third-largest city in population behind Lexington and Louisville.

The study released Friday was conducted and issued by Louisville-based consulting firm L.B. Schmidt and Associates LLC after an extensive analysis of five communities in Georgia and Kentucky that already have unified. The recommendations made by HCU would require at least one of the six cities to merge with county government but would need to be approved by a referendum of voters in each participating municipality.

HCU, a volunteer organization created to examine the strategic goals developed through the Hardin County Vision Project of 2010, hopes a plan can be developed and placed on the ballot as soon as November 2012.

HCU has scheduled an information session at 5:30 p.m. Wednesday at Hardin Memorial Hospital for elected officials and a community forum at 4:30 p.m. Thursday at the Hardin County Schools’ Performing Arts Center at John Hardin High School.

HCU argues unifying local governments would give the county the ability to “speak with one voice” and better equip itself to compete for state and federal grants.

Likewise, the county would gain a new level of “clout” to attract economic development and increase its profile in Frankfort and Washington, D.C. Unification also would streamline government and remove redundancies, according to HCU.

Luke Schmidt, whose firm conducted the study, said the county has roughly 105,000 residents but 94 different government jurisdictions, county and municipal departments, utilities, boards and commissions.

“That’s a lot of duplication,” he said.

In the study, HCU identified an “emerging urban core” of roughly 85,000 people that includes the cities of Elizabethtown, Radcliff and Vine Grove and the communities of Cecilia, Glendale and Rineyville. That core has been nicknamed “Hardinopolis.”

“Essentially, you have the third-largest city right here, but it’s not behaving that way,” said Hardin Circuit Judge Ken Howard, chairman of the HCU governance subcommittee.

The first step toward unification under the law is creation of a unification review commission, which would be considered by each municipality through a local ordinance. No city would be obligated to participate in creation of the commission, but HCU plans to approach municipalities about unification in September.

Each participating jurisdiction would appoint members to serve on the commission, which would contain between 20 and 40 members, and draft a plan to put to voters.

Schmidt said a city council or Fiscal Court would not be endorsing unification by voting to create the commission, but simply would give its constituents a voice in drafting the plan.

On the other hand, if a governing body opts out of the commission’s creation, that city would not play a role in the unification process.

Under state law, three forms of unification are permissible: urban county government, consolidated local government and unified local government.

Urban county government is the path taken by Lexington and Fayette County in the 1970s, which resulted in a complete consolidation of government services.

Consolidated local government gained approval by the state after Louisville and Jefferson County found the need to pursue unification to stave off population declines, Schmidt said. Using that method, the city of Louisville unified with Jefferson County and allowed roughly 70 incorporated suburban areas to opt into the plan, though none have, Schmidt said. This form of unification, however, requires at least one participating city to hold first class status. Presently, Louisville is the only Kentucky city to qualify.

The state later approved a third form of unified government that  Hardin County could use. It allows a similar consolidation as used by Louisville and Jefferson County without the need for a first class city’s involvement.

“No city in the state has used that vehicle, although Paducah and McCracken County are looking at it as this area is,” Howard said.

Schmidt said the unified local government model is practical for the county.

“It is the approach that makes the most sense, both politically and feasibly,” he said.

Lexington and Louisville were analyzed in the HCU report, as well as Athens-Clarke County, Ga.; Augusta-Richmond County, Ga.; and Columbus-Muscogee County, Ga.

Schmidt said HCU gathered insight from each case study and can borrow ideas from those charters to draft a plan. For example, Columbus-Muscogee County, Ga., dissolved roughly 44 regulatory bodies into nine departments, Schmidt’s study reports.

While it is up to the review commission to draft guidelines for a unified local government, HCU in a statement said it envisions a unified government with a strong executive branch and a legislative branch including representatives from specific geographic districts and representatives elected on an at-large basis.

But Howard said these ideas are just concepts and may not be included in a final plan.

HCU learned from former Lexington-Fayette Urban County Mayor Foster Pettit and former Louisville Metro Mayor Jerry Abramson that unification is not a means for cost savings, but should benefit residents in the long run by keeping tax rates stable and mitigating cost increases.

“Hardin County has been going steady for a long time,” Howard said. “Is now the time to get married?”

Howard also said it is the first time in more than 50 years governance in Hardin County has been seriously reviewed, dating back to the incorporation of Radcliff.

“I think it’s time for us just to think about it again,” Howard said. “Let’s just think about it.”

IF YOU GO

Hardin County United has scheduled two sessions next week to discuss its recommendations for a unified local government. An informational session for all local elected officials is scheduled for 5:30 p.m. Wednesday in the fifth floor conference room at Hardin Memorial Hospital. A community forum open to all Hardin County residents is scheduled for 4:30 p.m. Thursday at the Hardin County Schools’ Performing Arts Center at John Hardin High School.

Identified benefits of unification
1.
Ability for the community to speak with one voice and more efficiently target grants and appropriations, which would benefit the entire community while improving the community’s standing and stature in Frankfort and Washington, D.C.
2. Attainment of a new level of clout that would assist the entire community with economic development and job creation and would create Kentucky’s third largest community.
3. Streamlined government, which will result in  more efficient delivery of government services to all.
4. Economies of scale which would bring more efficient use of tax money.

 

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