Should we merge?

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Private group pushing to have city, county government become one

By Ben Carlson

A group headed by a local attorney is pushing to have the Lawrenceburg City Council and Anderson County Fiscal Court approve a study that could lead in their merger.

Such a move would ultimately have to be approved in a countywide vote, and would effectively dissolve city and county governments and roll them into one.
Walter Patrick, a well-known attorney who retired at the end of last year, said the time is now to consider merging governments.
“This is a golden opportunity for Lawrenceburg and Anderson County,” he said. “Lots of towns and cities across the country have done this.”
It would be a first in Kentucky, though, since a 1996 state statute was approved authorizing counties that do not already have consolidated governments to merge.
“I checked with the Kentucky League of Cities, and no one has even had the nerve to try this,” Patrick said. “We would be the first.”
Patrick said the obvious goals would be to streamline services and make them more efficient, and create ways to save tax dollars by ending duplication of services.

Getting started
To determine if those goals would be reality, Patrick said a study that could take up to two years must take place to find out.
That process would begin with the city council and fiscal court authorizing the creation of a committee of 20 to 40 people.
About a month ago, Patrick invited about 30 private citizens to a meeting to introduce the idea. That resulted in emissaries from the committee approaching Mayor Edwinna Baker and Judge-Executive John Wayne Conway to gauge their interest.
“What I said is that right now, I’m against it,” Conway said last week. “When somebody shows me the figures and shows me on paper that this is the best thing for Anderson County, my mind can be changed.”
Conway went on to say that he isn’t necessarily opposed to the idea of a study, but said that decision will ultimately be up to the fiscal court.
“I’m just the judge-executive,” he said. “The fiscal court is what passes ordinances. If an ordinance is drafted, it will be presented to the fiscal court and they will do with it what they choose.
“I have open ears.”
Baker acknowledged that she was approached with the idea, but said she would prefer to have more information about a possible study and potential merger before making an official comment.

Paying the bills
Outlined in Kentucky Revised Statute 67.900, the process would move from creating the committee to funding it, which the statute says should be done equally between county and city government.
Patrick said during his first meeting that he had already concluded that the city and county would each express immediate concerns about spending money not already in their budgets.
That challenge can be overcome by raising funds to pay for the study if the city and county declines to do so, he said.
Once funded, the committee would have a maximum of two years to determine if merging is feasible, along with putting in place a description of the form, structure, functions and powers of a merged government, along with a procedure for a timely transition should the measure be approved by voters.
Or, if during that time, a majority of the committee is unable to agree on a plan for merging, the committee would be dissolved.

Public input
Before the committee can put forward a final plan for merging, at least one public hearing would be required, but the committee could schedule more if it chose.
Following a final public hearing, the committee would vote on the proposed unification plan. If approved by the committee, the plan would then be placed on a countywide ballot during the next regular election.
If approved by voters, the plan would become effective the following Jan. 1, followed by the election of officers for the newly formed legislative council. That vote would be held in the next even-numbered year. If rejected by voters, it could not be voted on again for five years.

How it would work
If approved by voters, Lawrenceburg would no longer have a mayor or city council, and Anderson County would no longer have a fiscal court.
It would, however, retain the position of judge-executive because the office is mandated by the state’s constitution, as are positions including sheriff, PVA, county attorney and county clerk.
The judge-executive would become the legislative council’s chief executive officer, and retain all the powers he or she already had, along with the salary mandated by the state.
The CEO would have the authority to appoint a chief administrative officer, provided he or she receives approval of three-fifths of the legislative council. That person would handle many of the day-to-day functions of the unified government, and would be required to possess education and/or professional experience in public administration.
The CEO would also have the authority to appoint members of boards, commissions, authorities or other entities formed by a unified local government, subject to majority approval by the legislative council.
Patrick said issues such as how many people would be elected to the legislative committee could vary.
He also said that those who live outside of the county and do not pay city taxes would not necessarily have their taxes increased.
He said he envisions various taxing districts, based on services provided by government.
Although mergers have been successfully done in other states, he said they have also failed.
“But the ones that failed were really obvious attempts of a city trying to take over a county or a county trying to take over a city,” he said.
“Here, the law mandates equality in representation, which makes a big difference and in my book is the way to go.”

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