Merger study results to be released

Published 12:40 pm Friday, May 4, 2018

A discussion that started at least a quarter of a century ago, on the potential merger of the city governments in the Tri-Cities of Cumberland, Benham and Lynch, will be the focus of a public meeting on Monday when the results of a study undertaken by the Kentucky League of Cities will be released at 6:30 p.m. at the Betty Howard Memorial Theater in Benham.

Officials from the Tri-City Chamber of Commerce, which contracted with KLC to conduct the study, said that while they expected the report earlier than this, they predicted the wait would be worth it.

“The comprehensive nature of the study, involving the analyzing of voluminous amounts of data, resulted in some delays,” said Jeff Wilder, chamber president. “However, we believe the three city councils and citizens in general will be pleased with the information that has been gathered, as well as how it is presented,” he said.

W. Bruce Ayers, the chamber’s executive director, also pointed out that this particular study was unique because it examines how three small cities would merge.

“Merging three cities does not happen often,” he said.

A meeting was held last fall in Benham to discuss the study and accept public comments.

Wilder and several others stressed that neither the Tri-City Chamber of Commerce nor the Kentucky League of Cities was taking a stance on the issue, at least not until after a draft of the plan is presented.

“We’re not here to tell you what you should do, but what you could do,” said Tad Long, the director of community development for the KLC. “Only the voters of the cities can decide. We want to hear your comments.”

Long praised the work of the city governments and the willingness of city clerks from each to hand over an extensive amount of data needed to help the KLC prepare the report.

“We have the data gathered and are putting the numbers together,” Long said. “We received full cooperation from all three cities.”

Long noted the cities and residents have three options — to vote for merger, keep the status quo or work toward interlocal agreements to share services, especially in areas like water and sewage, where several noted that all three city systems in both were aging and in danger of failing. He said the “fall of 2018 is the earliest a referendum could take place.”

Long pointed out several times that the merger would not erase the debt of the cities but said agencies may be more willing to work with a merged city government to help ease the financial burden.

Roy Silver, who leads the Benham Power Board and is a professor at Southeast Kentucky Technical and Community College, asked several questions, including the governing structure for a possible merged government.

Chris Johnson, of legal services with the KLC, said if the merged government was approved all 19 council members currently serving would comprise the new merged council, at least until elections were held.

Johnson said the new government would initially take the form of the largest city, which is Cumberland, but noted that new council could adopt “ward elections” to “ensure local representation.” He said a problem with that idea is that sometimes you could see a situation where no one in a precinct wanted to run for the council.

Cumberland’s status as a wet city was also brought up and officials said the areas of the Tri-Cities that were currently wet or moist would remain that way and other areas would not be affected, unless voters in those precincts also approved some form of alcohol sales. He also said the new government could introduce a ballot measure for the entire merged area.

Adams asked Harlan County Judge-Executive Dan Mosley if the merged government could expect more help from the state.

Mosley was noncommittal on the merger but noted that all three cities had troubled water and sewage systems and said the state was “not eager to dump money into a system serving few people.”

A representative from Congressman Hal Rogers’ office said Rogers “supports the cities on whatever they choose to do.”

Questions officials said would be covered by the study include:

* A description of the legal requirements under the Kentucky Revised Statutes for the merger of governmental entities;

* A presentation of the budgets, financial data and audits from each of the three cities;

* An examination of city budgets as well as one-year, five-year and 10-year projected budgets for each city;

* The presentation of a comparative analysis that looks at each city’s services, budgets and financial data. Each city is unique, and KLC needed baseline data that represented the same things for each of them;

* An identification and analysis of merger trends in Kentucky, the U.S. and internationally;

* An analysis of population trends, demographic change and historical context of each city;

* Presentation of a comprehensive list of options, including merging, not merging and unincorporating;

* A description of potential areas for cooperation among the cities through interlocal agreements;

* A description of the merger transition process if the cities decide to merge;

* An analysis of tax rates and revenue options for each city and the impact of merging or not merging; and

* The identification of city services or functions most likely to be affected by merger.

Long will lead the presentation of the results of the study, according to Ayers, who also noted that individuals in attendance will be given the opportunity to ask questions.

A summary of the merger study will be available at the meeting. The full report will be available on the KLC website in an online readable version, as well as PDF version which can be downloaded following the conclusion of the meeting.