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.
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.