The News-Enterprise: Unification Talk Raises Issue About County’s Role

This column by Ben Sheroan first appeared in The News-Enterprise on July 30, 2011.  The full, online version can be found here:

By Ben Sheroan, Editor

It’s good to consider new ways of doing business. Rather than accept things as they are, let’s consider how they could be — or even how they should be.

An extensive study of consolidated government in other cities and a year’s worth of research, interviews and consideration has led Hardin County United to recommend that unification of government be considered locally.

Circuit Judge Ken Howard, who led the governance subcommittee, began with a simple premise: If 105,000 people were to settle in this region today, would we organize government and conduct the public’s business in the same way?

Probably not.

What we have is what’s grown through a combination of development, maturity, legalities and tradition.

Consider, for example, when Vine Grove was settled in the early 1800s doing business at the county seat in Elizabethtown was at least a half-day’s ride by buggy. Fortunately, the settlers didn’t have to update a license plate every year on those horse-drawn vehicles.

The world is quite different and our communities are quite different. But in many respects, we still are governed by 19th century methods.

State law provides for an opportunity for voters to consider change. It requires development of a formal legal document outlining the organization and responsibility. We’ll learn more about the process in the coming week as HCU conducts a meeting for government officials Wednesday and a community forum at 4:30 p.m. Thursday at the Hardin County Schools Performing Arts Center at John Hardin High School.

For now, let me introduce one thought about a basic flaw in Kentucky’s approach to governance that was introduced to me two decades ago.

While living in Owensboro in the early 1990s, local officials there unsuccessfully proposed a merger of city government with Daviess County. Voters rejected the charter for a variety of personal and political reasons. But one concept introduced lives with me.

We tend to view county government as rural government. But it serves us all. We all pay county taxes. We all vote for the judge-executive and county magistrates.

As a resident of Elizabethtown, I pay city taxes which help in providing city services. As a resident of Hardin County, I pay county taxes and a hunk of that amount goes elsewhere.

Here’s what I mean: If the street outside my house had a pothole, my county taxes never will be applied to fix it. Although my street is in Hardin County, it is the responsibility of Elizabethtown’s city government.

The system makes sense in that urban residents require or perhaps desire a greater level of services. But in some cases, it doesn’t seem to provide fairness or equity.

For example, if the city and county decide to work hand in hand, the burden falls disportionately. If a joint project is financed on a 50-50 basis, all of the city’s portion comes from city residents and part of the county’s portion also comes from taxes paid by city residents.

It seems there’s a flaw in that financial matrix.

This is not a condemnation of county government. I enjoy the public library and the first-quality local hospital that are county-delivered functions. While I don’t think about it often, the county government’s landfill and detention center are necessary and expensive services that are vital to quality of life.

I’m just saying there could be a better way. For me, it’s worth listening to the ideas this week and watching the process evolve as local cities and county government consider participating in the process of unification.


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