LANCASTER — Lancaster and Garrard County officials swapped opinions Monday about creating a commission to study a merged charter-county form of government.
Discussions that centered primarily on the make-up of the study commission and the potential outcomes of its formation created uncertainty about Lancaster City Council’s willingness to pass the second reading of the ordinance required to form the commission.
The council approved the first reading 5-1 in August with Councilman Brandon McGlone casting the lone no vote. But he and other council members questioned Monday exactly what power the commission would have.
Representatives from the Kentucky League of Cities, Kentucky Association of Counties, Bluegrass Area Development District and Department for Local Government attended Monday’s meeting at the request of the council to offer answers and opinions.
Richard Ornstein, KACo staff attorney, said under the charter-county ordinance, the appointed commission could create a plan merging the city and county completely or combining only some services such as law enforcement.
But Laura Milam Ross, KLC legal services counsel, noted that group is “not a true study commission” because the ordinance requires some plan to go before voters in a general election.
Thus, the commission may not have the choice to do nothing if it finds no benefits in merger or consolidation, she said.
However, if the commission determined that combining services is not in residents’ best interests, a court is unlikely to rule to demand that some merger go on the ballot, said Andrew Hartley, Department for Local Government staff attorney.
The representatives agreed that many answers are uncertain because no governments have successfully enacted the charter-county government ordinance.
“Unfortunately, because this hasn’t happened yet, we just don’t know,” Ornstein said.
But Garrard County Judge-Executive John Wilson and Councilwoman Maggie Morris Mick said the commission likely would find at least some areas where joining forces would save city, county and taxpayer money.
“We all know that our citizens have overlapping services and some unfair double taxing,” Mick said. “Even if the commission finds one area … that’s one thing fixed.”
Wilson also stressed that the county saved thousands by relinquishing control of its solid waste department and 911 center and merging with Lincoln County.
“My heart tells me that there’s going to be some of the things that are that simple,” he said.
However, Councilman McGlone and KLC representative Ross noted that any service or department could be merged without a charter-county commission through an interlocal agreement. McGlone reiterated that government structure is the only thing that cannot be changed without the ordinance and said the city and county can cooperate to create more efficiency without the extra regulations.
The ordinance, however, provides structure and validity to the commission studying consolidation options, Mick said.
“That’s more substantial than an ad hoc committee that’s going to meet willy nilly,” she said.
“This really sets a timeline and some accountability to the process.”
Ornstein noted that if the issue does not get on the ballot in 2012, mergers would likely not take effect until at least 2019, as officials elected in the interim will have to serve their full terms.
A commission formed and guided by regulation is probably more likely to expedite the study, Ornstein said.
“You really don’t have two years,” he said. “You have 11 or 12 months.”
Wilson again warned that delaying the vote could cost the potential commission valuable help from outside organizations, including the Bluegrass Area Development District and Eastern Kentucky University.
BGADD Assistant Executive Director David Duttlinger said Estill, Anderson and Scott counties also are considering studying merger, and the front-running merger commission likely will receive grant money and assistance the others will not.
“After it’s figured out, people are sort of going to be on their own,” he said.
McGlone remained resistant to the idea, stressing that speed should not be a motivating factor, especially when the city may be at a disadvantage if the ordinance is enacted.
If created by ordinance, the commission would have 45 percent of its members appointed by the city and 55 percent appointed the county, a figure which concerned Ross and KLC.
Due to the appointment proportions, the commission could approve a plan for merger without the consent of any city representative because only a simple majority is necessary to get the plan on the ballot during a general election.
Then, voters who live only in the county and make up about 80 percent of the total population could pass the plan, despite the wishes of city voters, she said.
“You just have to be prepared if you enact this ordinance you could relinquish legislative control at that point as a city,” Ross said. “(KLC) does not feel that the charter-county government is the best option out there.”
Wilson argued the county residents are ultimately the ones with unequal representation on the commission because they make up 80 percent of votes and only 55 percent of the commission. He also said he would have no problem appointing a city resident as a county representative on the commission and stressed that the commission’s plan would have no legitimacy without support of the vast majority of the commission.
“We’re not giving our citizens enough credit,” he said.
McGlone said after the meeting that he would vote no on a second reading of the commission-creating ordinance.
But the other council members Mick, Bret Baierlein, Jesse Wagoner, Chris Davis and Mike Sutton said they were undecided.
The second reading will likely happen at the council’s regular meeting Oct. 3.