LANCASTER — Garrard County Fiscal Court demonstrated willingness to explore partial or complete merger with Lancaster at its Monday meeting.
Court members unanimously approved the first reading of an ordinance that would create a commission to study the options for unification, ranging from consolidation of some units to merger of both governments.
The ordinance is rooted in a state law that seeks to “prevent duplication of services, and to promote efficient and economical management” by giving local appointees the right to create a plan for consolidation and voters the power to approve or defeat the proposal.
“We’re here to promote efficiency in government,” Judge-Executive John Wilson said. “I can’t sit here and say that this is the best answer, but I think it behooves us to study it.”
Fiscal Court agreed by giving preliminary approval, but its vote is only the first step in an extensive process.
Both the Fiscal Court and Lancaster City Council must pass the commission-creating ordinance for the group of 20 to 40 members to develop.
In a sign of solidarity, Lancaster Mayor Brenda Powers attended the Fiscal Court meeting and expressed interest in the findings of a potential commission.
“We just need to look at it and see,” she said. “What’s best for our community and our taxpayers is what we need to do.”
However, Powers did not say when or if the City Council will vote on the ordinance, and Wilson said he got mixed responses from council members when he emailed them about the idea.
Some councilmen agreed Monday they are open to discussing the ordinance but need more specifics before deciding how to vote.
“It could be a good thing, I’m not doubting that a bit, but we need more information,” Councilman Chris Davis said.
Councilmen Mike Sutton and Brandon McGlone said they favor listening to the opinions of Wilson and the Fiscal Court but are unsure exactly what the commission would study and how they would feel about it. McGlone also expressed hesitancy about the idea of merged governments, noting that the council would need to know all of the details before discussing such an option.
“Anytime that we can work together and make it cheaper for our taxpayers, that would be great,” he said. “I don’t know if we need a commission to do that.”
Council members Maggie Morris Mick, Jesse Wagoner and Bret Baierlein could not be reached for comment by deadline.
If both the county and city pass the ordinance, the commission must be formed within 60 days. The Fiscal Court would appoint 55 percent of the members, and the City Council would select 45 percent, according to law. The members ideally would include all magistrates and council members, Wilson said.
Once in place, the commission would research options and develop a plan for merger, he said.
The proposal may call for the merger of “all units of city and county government into a charter county form of government” or consolidation “of any agency, subdivision, department, or subdistrict providing any services or performing any functions for a city or county,” including police and fire departments, the statutes state.
Voters would make the ultimate decision during a general election about whether to adopt the plan. But Wilson emphasized that all the proposed ordinance will do is allow both city and county governments to explore possibilities.
“This is like buying a car,” he said. “We want to look at the figures. We want to look under the hood and kick the tires and have no commitment.”
Mergers across Kentucky
Only 27 of about 3,100 counties or county equivalents in America have merged with city governments in the past 100 years, Wilson said. The Lexington-Fayette County merger in 1974 and the Louisville-Jefferson County merger in 2003 constitute two of those instances.
“Obviously, everybody thinks Lexington and Louisville, that those are the only ones,” Wilson said. “This is happening more and more.”
Anderson County will vote later this month on an ordinance to investigate merger options with Lawrenceburg, and Estill County and the cities of Irvine and Ravenna also have begun a similar process, he said.
McCracken County and Paducah created a commission to study unification in 2009, and a merger proposal is likely to go on the ballot for a vote in November 2012, McCracken County Judge-Executive Van Newberry said. However, commission members there struggled to combine law enforcement and fire departments and ultimately decided to let the status quo prevail. So the proposal suggests more of a restructuring than a merger, Newberry said.
“When you get right down to it, we’re just creating a different kind of government,” he said.
Newberry said voters will likely defeat the plan, which may not do more than allow the governments to speak with a united voice.
A study conducted by the area’s Chamber of Commerce showed that the city and county had few duplicated services, so a merger would only save money in the long run, if at all, Newberry said.
But he urged Garrard County officials not to shy away from exploring possibilities for consolidation.
“It could be a tool that could be helpful,” he said. “Your situation may be different than ours.”
Wilson noted that Garrard County and Lancaster have smaller populations and tax bases, and that the county has savings and grants totaling hundreds of thousands of dollars from combining solid waste departments and 911 call centers with Lincoln County.
Magistrate Fred Simpson, who also has worked for the city, said taking a regional approach is nearly essential to securing grant money and providing for constituents these days.
“There’s very few things that we can do to provide the same or better services for less money except for where we can eliminate duplication of service,” he said.
However, Lancaster has previously resisted consolidation of services.
In March 2010, Wilson suggested discussing the Lancaster Police Department contracting with the Garrard County Sheriff’s Office to save the city at least $100,000 annually. But former Mayor Don Rinthen Jr. quickly announced he was “totally against any takeover of the Lancaster Police Department by the Garrard County Fiscal Court” and said he did not see how the city could amass such savings.
Simpson acknowledged that City Council members may still have reservations about combining services.
“There will be a fear out there of losing local autonomy,” he said.
City Council adoption of a commission-creating ordinance is not, however, absolutely necessary to create the group.
A petition signed by enough registered voters to equal 20 percent of the county residents who participated in the last general election could force the governments to create the commission, according to state law. Wilson said this would require about 1,117 signatures, but he hopes the City Council will choose to vote on the ordinance.
“It’s best for people if we at least study it,” he said.