Downtown Debate Covers Key Merger Issues
By Bill Hughes
PADUCAH, KY - Between 150-200 people dodged the showers in downtown Paducah on Monday to hear both sides of the merger debate, before the issue appears on the November 6 ballot.
County Judge-Executive Van Newberry and John Williams, Jr. were both part of a study group that gathered information about merged governments in other areas, what a combined government might look like in McCracken County, and what benefits or problems might result. They came to opposite conclusions.
During opening statements, Williams said, "This is about positive growth, jobs, tax fairness, stronger and better representation, and speaking with one voice."
He added that the county's lack of one voice is expensive and embarrassing when reaching out to job providers, when talking and suing over annexation, and dealing with parks, roads, convention centers and pauper burials.
Newberry recalled local economic development advisors have said it "might" bring jobs, but nobody knows for sure. He cited data showing that 97% of merger proposals have failed to get enough votes in the last 100 years.
"Why have they not done merger? Because they know it won't help," Newberry said.
Williams pointed out that Newberry has the minority opinion among those who hope for new jobs in McCracken County.
"Of the 25 leaders of our economic development agencies - prior presidents, chairs, chamber of commerce presidents, and elected officials - all of these people I've talked to in the last 6 weeks are for the merger. Right now I think the Judge is pretty lonely in being against it," Williams stated.
But Newberry stood firm, implying that those people are basing their vote on hope, not concrete data.
"After 2-1/2 years of study. we found no factual evidence it will help with economic development, or create jobs. Period. Even the Chamber, with their study, said, 'It might, it could'; I don't know about might and could, do you?" Newberry said.
Regarding the size of the new merged government, Williams claimed that it will be more efficient as duplicated services are cut, and more responsive because of district representation. Newberry's opinion was that the state and federal governments prove that bigger isn't better, since those governments are less responsive and less agile. He added that since most county workers are employees of elected officials (Clerk, Jailer, Sheriff, etc.), their jobs would not fall under the merged government's management, but all city employees would.
The merger proposal includes a 5-year moratorium on tax increases, but what happens after that? Newberry says nobody know for sure, but the new government can do just about whatever it wants. He added that nobody wants higher taxes - well, with two exceptions.
"It's one person and the group that's pushing merger the hardest - and that is the Mayor of Paducah and the Chamber of Commerce - the only ones that have asked me to raise taxes in the last six years," Newberry said.
Williams countered that simple math shows that taxes will go up unless there is population growth. But eliminating duplication of services and equal taxpayer representation factor into the equation, too.
"The experience of other merged governments is that they do find efficiencies, but the bottom line is that taxes are in the hands of an elected council at the end of this moratorium, a body that would be accountable to all of McCracken County, which is not what you have today," Williams said.
Minorities represent 25% of city residents, but only 10% in the county. When asked about minority representation in the merged government, Williams said the newly-drawn districts would choose their own representative, giving everyone a better voice, including minorities. Newberry argued that the percentages show that merger will unfairly hurt African-American representation in government.
Newberry closed by saying the real answer to growth and jobs is hard work, and a real investment in the community. Building and improving infrastructure, along with good schools and hospitals, low crime rates, skilled workers, and educated citizens. None of this cheap or easy, but it's what produces results. Williams said the growth that's needed won't happen by doing the same thing we've been doing, while hoping for better results. He says lack of growth and jobs are not fine, and that voting for the merger is recognition that the county needs to reform and do better.