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Commissioners better representatives

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By Harry Berry

By Harry L. Berry

Guest columnist

A golfer says three is better than eight. I also believe this is true when deciding the type of fiscal court best for Hardin County – a commission or magisterial form.

In November 2004, voters chose changing to a fiscal court utilizing commissioners rather than justices of the peace (often referred to as magistrates). The county’s three commissioners were subsequently elected in November 2006 and took office January, 2007 – less than two years ago.

In June, 2008 a valid petition was presented requesting a vote on returning to the justice of the peace (magisterial form) form of fiscal court. As a result, this November 4th, citizens will have an opportunity to vote on the following ballot initiative:

“Are you in favor of a return to a fiscal court composed of the county judge/executive and eight (8) justices of the peace, who shall represent specific districts within the county?”

As we approach November’s election, many “myths” are being spread concerning this issue. Please allow me to “set the record straight”:

Myth: The commission form of fiscal court does not provide good local representation.

Fact: Approximately 44% of Kentuckians are represented by other than a magisterial local government. These governments, encompassing some of the most populated areas of our state, include two merged county/city governments (previously utilizing commissioners) and fifteen counties with a functioning commission form of fiscal court.

Fact: A key difference between commissioners and magistrates is that all voters within the county elect each commissioner but only voters living in the magisterial district elect a magistrate.

Fact: magistrates (if this initiative passes we would have eight) focus primarily on their district and frequently make decisions based on the district’s best interest – not the county’s as a whole. This leads to turf battles, county sectionalism, and polarization between different areas of the county.

Fact: Elected countywide, commissioners represent the entire county and make decisions based on what is best for the entire county. They are predisposed to capitalizing on our strengths and abundant resources to develop and grow our county collectively.

Fact: In the past we often found ourselves competing within the county rather than working toward mutual growth and prosperity. In a magisterial system issues are often argued from a “territorial” view and votes are cast on a parochial basis instead of from a “what’s best for Hardin County” mindset.

Fact: Hardin County is among the largest in Kentucky (both population and geographically), but other areas can easily surpass us when competing for resources or development if we lack unity in our endeavors. A commission fiscal court helps inspire countywide unity in efforts toward mutual success.

Myth: Opponents to the commission system say rural areas are not represented.

Fact: Based on 2007 census estimates, 52.7percent of our population resides within a city and 47.3 percent live in the unincorporated areas. In the previous magisterial system, three of the eight districts were dominated by Elizabethtown precincts while Radcliff and Vine Grove controlled yet another three districts. Only two of the eight districts were mostly rural.

Fact: When commissioner districts were drawn, simple mathematics and geography dictated boundaries resulting in two districts with significant amounts of city representation and one district with predominantly rural representation.

Fact: The former magisterial system resulted in two of eight districts as primarily rural versus the commission form of government where one of three districts is heavily rural. Last I checked 33 percent was greater than 25 percent. Even though our county demographics insure one commissioner will come from a primarily rural district, all three commissioners need votes from all three districts to win their county wide elections.

Myth: Magistrates are more responsive than commissioners.

Fact: Every commissioner is responsible to every citizen in the county. Magistrates were only beholden to the voters of their district – not the entire county population. As a voter in the commission system you have a say in electing or re-electing every fiscal court member (4 out of 4) – that makes them more responsive to you, With the magisterial form you choose only two of the nine members (the judge and one magistrate). You have no say in hiring and firing the other seven members of Fiscal Court.

Myth: When there is a tie vote, the judge-executive has two votes in a commission fiscal court.

Fact: Sixty-three of Kentucky’s 118 fiscal courts have an even number of members. Tie votes are handled the same in magisterial and commission systems. Only in personnel actions does the judge-executive “break” a tie after 15 days of deadlock. In all other fiscal court votes, the judge possesses the same power as a magistrate or commissioner. On a tie vote, the motion fails. Do you prefer a slim five to four vote or a three to one vote to pass controversial actions?

Myth: Reverting to magistrates is a minimal cost.

Fact: In September 2005 the previous magistrates voted to maintain the pay for commissioners at the same level magistrates were then being paid plus annual cost of living increases. It is the responsibility of each fiscal court to set the pay for the following term no later than the first Monday in May prior to the November county elections.

Fact: Currently a Hardin County commissioner is paid $29,025.62 in base pay. Each also receives $3,600 annually for serving on fiscal court committees, and $3,524.72 annually in training incentives for a total of $36,150.34 in direct compensation. Additionally, the cost for benefits including health insurance premiums and retirement contributions totals $16,045.58 for each commissioner. Total pay and benefits cost for each commissioner is $52,195.92.

Fact: Adding five additional members to fiscal court (eight magistrates vs. three commissioners) would increase costs by $260,979.60 each year plus annual cost of living increases, or over $1 million for each four-year term of fiscal court.

Myth: Changing to commissioners narrowly won in the 2004 election.

Fact: The ballot initiative for changing to commissioners passed by a 5 percent margin in November 2004. If one of the candidates for president wins by a 5% margin the headlines may read “Senator __________ wins by a LANDSLIDE!” For a ballot issue to win on the first attempt is rather rare, much less winning by a 5 percent margin.

Myth: Additional county staff was added due to the reduction from eight magistrates to three commissioners.

Fact: No additional staff was added to “compensate” for the change from magistrates to commissioners. During this term, one employee was added to the finance office to assist with growing federal accounting regulations, one person was added in engineering to assist with mandated storm water management issues, and one staff member was added to cope with increasing concerns regarding code enforcement. These employees are not doing any work previously done by magistrates. As our county grows, so does the need for staff to oversee required programs and government services.

Myth: If passed, magistrates will be elected next year.

Fact: If voters decide to return to magistrates, they will be elected in the county’s 2010 general election and will take office on the first Monday of January 2011.

Hardin is a steadily growing county. We long passed the days when blacktop was prioritized by who someone knew instead of where it was needed most. Government for a county our size is increasingly more complex and heavily regulated. We have long outlived the day of stubby pencils and stencil machines. Computers, high speed internet, and digital databases are now the norm.

To keep pace, county government must continue to modernize. We must work to leverage our resources to promote prosperity for the entire county. If we revert back to dividing ourselves along north/south boundaries we will fall behind. Conversely, continued unity of focus will propel us into the future we want for our children and grandchildren.

Finally, let us always remember, the potential value of the whole is far greater than the sum of the pieces comprising it! On November 4th vote “NO” for returning to eight justices of the peace (magistrates) – let’s keep moving Hardin County forward with our commissioners!

Remember; No New Taxes = “NO” to justices of the peace!

Harry L. Berry is Hardin County Judge-Executive.