The News-Enterprise: Mayors: Questions Linger About Unification

This article first appeared in The News-Enterprise on August 1, 2011.  The full, online version can be found here:

By Marty Finley

Local mayors say they are open minded concerning a proposal to unify local governments, but informational gaps need to be filled before city government can  weigh the idea seriously.

“There’s still a lot of unanswered questions,” Elizabethtown Mayor Tim Walker said.

Some questions could be answered Wednesday when Hardin County United conducts an informational session for elected officials in the fifth floor conference room at Hardin Memorial Hospital. A community forum is scheduled at 4:30 p.m. Thursday at the Hardin County Schools Performing Arts Center at John Hardin High School.

Wednesday’s meeting is to brief elected officials on the idea of unifying local governments under a statute adopted by the Kentucky General Assembly in 2006 that allows counties and cities to merge governments and resources. The statute requires at least one incorporated city to merge with county government, but all six incorporated cities are encouraged to unify, according to HCU.

HCU said such a merger would establish the third-largest city in the state and give Hardin County more clout statewide and nationally, and more leverage when pursuing federal and state grants.

It also would improve government efficiency and reduce duplication of services, HCU argued in a study released last week.

For unification to materialize, a unification review commission will have to be created, which will draft the plan that would be presented to voters on the ballot. Members of the commission would be appointed by the jurisdictions that vote to participate in the review commission.

Walker said he knows the study was well-researched and recognizes the potential benefits of merging, but he said Hardin County is unique in its standing.

HCU’s study analyzed three merged governments in Georgia — Athens-Clarke County, Augusta-Richmond County and Columbus-Muscogee County — and two in Kentucky, Lexington-Fayette County and Louisville-Jefferson County.

In all five instances, Walker said, the mergers primarily involved one larger city and the county, which is a different scenario than Hardin County. In addition to being one of the largest counties in the state in land mass and population, he said, Hardin County has two cities of similar size in Elizabethtown and Radcliff.

“I think this is a different animal,” he said.

So much so that Walker believes the state may have to intervene again to make unification functional.

“I think there would have to be some new legislation to make this work,” he said.

And while the county does not operate under a metro government, it has shown a collective willingness to work together through avenues such as the Metropolitan Planning Organization and One Knox, he added.

Radcliff Mayor J.J. Duvall said Monday he has heard little feedback from the public concerning government unification, but he felt the plan must be explained further. For example, he said many within Radcliff want to explore the implications of such a merger.

“People want to know how this would benefit Radcliff,” Duvall said.

A thorough review, Duvall added, is crucial.

“In my opinion, we need to look at all avenues,” he said.

Duvall referenced the voter recall of a commissioner form of county government as a reason the plan should be considered carefully. After approving the commissioner form, voters came back in 2008 and replaced with the magisterial form of government by a 2-to-1 margin.

“We haven’t looked at our form of government in over 50 years, but we went to a commissioner form of government and it was overwhelmingly overturned,” Duvall said.

Vine Grove Mayor Blake Proffitt said he had received no feedback from the community as of Monday afternoon and had no gauge on how Vine Grove City Council members feel about the proposal.

“I don’t know what that says about the project, but I’ve not had a pro or con comment on it,” Proffitt said.

Proffitt said local officials should listen to the proposal, explore the possibilities and let the people decide.

“That’s what America is about,” he said.

West Point Mayor William Ash did not return calls from The News-Enterprise seeking comment, and Sonora Mayor Larry Copelin could not be reached at his home for comment.

Within the study, HCU identified an “emerging urban core” of roughly 85,000 residents that includes the cities of Elizabethtown, Radcliff and Vine Grove and the communities of Cecilia, Glendale and Rineyville, temporarily nicknamed “Hardinopolis.”

Walker said Hardin County residents are unsure what their government would look like under a merged government and he’s not certain such a picture could be painted yet.

He said residents and elected officials need to attend the forums this week and soak up as much information as possible.

“They need to be as informed as they can be before they make a decision,” he said.


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