The News-Enterprise: HCU Tackles Concerns About Unification

This article first appeared in The News-Enterprise on August 3, 2011.  The full, online version can be found here:

By Marty Finley

Hardin Circuit Judge Ken Howard told a roomful of elected officials Wednesday that Hardin County is in an age of prosperity and growth, which is the perfect time to consider looking at a unified local government.

Without a crisis hanging over their heads or their backs against the wall, a more reasoned and careful examination of unification can be taken, he said.

“We’re not bouncing checks that I know of,” he said of Hardin County’s successes.

Howard, chairman of the Hardin County United Governance Subcommittee, partnered with consultant Luke Schmidt to walk elected officials through a comprehensive study Schmidt’s firm conducted that analyzed five unified governments in Georgia and Kentucky.

The session, held at Hardin Memorial Hospital, is one of two scheduled this week to educate and inform the community about the benefits of unification, with a community forum planned at 4:30 p.m. today at the Hardin County Schools Performing Arts Center at John Hardin High School.

For unification to gain traction, HCU has to convince Hardin Fiscal Court and local city councils to approve an ordinance to participate in construction of a unification review commission, comprised of 20 to 40 residents who will draft the unification charter presented to voters.

Howard has said the earliest the plan could be placed on the ballot would be November 2012.

He reiterated the vote to participate in the commission does not equate to a vote to unify. Vine Grove Mayor Blake Proffitt said he believes this idea is a common misconception since the study’s release.

“It’s not a vote to unify,” he said. The unification of governments also would not affect local school districts.

Proffitt said he feels he would be failing in his duties as a local official if he did not give the idea consideration to see if it is feasible. If Vine Grove participates in the commission and he opposes the charter, he said he would personally travel door to door to ensure Vine Grove does not opt into a metro government.

Under state law, a unified local government requires at least one incorporated city to merge governments with the county but would give all six incorporated cities the chance to do so.

Howard said participation in the commission simply gives voters options when they go to the polls and gives each city a seat in creation of a unified government. If a council votes for participation in the commission, its residents still can vote for county government to merge as a county resident, but its city will maintain a separate government.

Howard said there is no deadline for the commission’s creation, but HCU would like to see it formed by late fall. The commission would have up to two years to draft a charter, and it typically takes about two years for a unified government to be implemented, he added. Howard said that is appropriate because it would allow local officials to finish their terms.

HCU has recommended the unified government have a strong executive and legislative presence with creation of small geographic districts and some at-large districts.

HCU also has called for creation of urban services districts for areas where enhanced services are needed and a general services district, which would primarily offer basic services in more rural areas.

Howard said inclusion of different services districts could allow for different tax structures.

Elizabethtown Councilwoman Edna Berger asked how a unified government would affect the restaurant tax, while others wondered about effects on occupational taxes.

Howard said tax structures largely would remain the same initially unless the new government changes them.

Likewise, specialty taxes and votes on alcohol status would not be affected unless the new government chose to make changes, Howard said.

Berger also asked what the average resident would gain through unification. Hardin County Chamber of Commerce Executive Director Brad Richardson said unification would make the county more attractive to developers and industry, thereby creating more jobs.

HCU has contended unification of local governments would increase government efficiency and remove duplication of services, but it also would allow the county to leverage its size and increase its level of clout when pursuing federal and state grants.

Berger said job creation should be the chief selling point to voters.

“That’s how you’re going to have to sell it if it’s going to work because John Doe doesn’t care if government is more efficient if his taxes are going to be the same,” Berger said.

Howard and Schmidt have said the merger of government likely will not create cost savings or tax reductions, but it could ensure tax rates stay steady or increase at a slower rate.

State Rep. Jimmie Lee, D-Elizabethtown, said the idea should be explored further to see if it is the optimal way to govern. As you grow, he said, you have to examine how the government needs to respond and adapt to the needs of the growing community.

But Elizabethtown City Councilman Marty Fulkerson said he believes the differences in rules and regulations between areas and districts could create as much or more confusion than exists now. He also said it would be unfair to place the burden of increased industry in smaller areas where infrastructure is not available to accommodate such developments.

But Howard said the county would be committed to improving infrastructure where needed if it created jobs, pointing to work in the Glendale area as an example.

HCU also has proposed that unification include a merger between the county and Elizabethtown and/or Radcliff.

Elizabethtown City Councilman Larry Ashlock asked if the plan works if both cities do not opt in, noting that the two cities are similar in size.

Howard said the charter would need to be written to require a minimum amount of participation from voters. The commission, he added, could decide both cities are needed for the plan to be effective.

“It takes at least one,” Howard said.

HCU also has proposed a separate department be created to interface with Fort Knox, similar to One Knox, and an avenue be built in at a later time to allow cities that do not initially unify the opportunity to do so. However, Howard said the process would have to be repeated if a city decides to join and the addition would have to be approved by residents in the metro government.

Howard also said the commission could reject all of the suggestions made by HCU once formed.

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