Scott Smith, Kokomo Tribune Staff Writer

Kokomo Mayor Greg Goodnight announced plans Wednesday to have city and county officials begin what’s expected to be a lengthy examination of local government consolidation in Howard County.

A group of local leaders has been invited to a discussion, starting at 5:30 p.m. Monday at City Hall, to begin laying the groundwork for a standing citizen committee on consolidation.

Goodnight called for the formation of the committee during his March 8 State of the City address, urging local officials to “reach across traditional boundaries, and work to eliminate duplication of services.”

In an invitation sent to local leaders Wednesday, Goodnight said Monday’s meeting will “explore introductory topics of government consolidation in Howard County, such as legal requirements for initiating a consolidation, how a plan for consolidation is generated, and the timeline associated with implementation.”

The overall framework for the committee idea was laid out in the 2006 passage of the state’s Government Modernization Act, which allows local governments to voluntarily consolidate.

State Sen. Jim Buck, R-Kokomo, co-authored the legislation, also known as House Bill 1362.

“You couldn’t eliminate governments and merge governments prior to 1362,” Buck said. “Under [1362] you could consolidate counties if you wanted to. You could merge Howard and Miami counties together, if that’s what the people wanted.”

Ironically, Buck is one of the most outspoken advocates of township government and has cast votes consistently against Indiana Gov. Mitch Daniels’ local government reform efforts.

“Show me the savings from consolidation. It never has been there, it never will be there,” Buck said Wednesday.

Even so, Buck said the bill “is about allowing the locals a choice.”

“That’s all it’s about,” he said. “The government is the people’s government.”

Others, like Goodnight and Daniels, think consolidation can end duplication of services and costs.

In his address, Goodnight questioned “why a county our size maintains five separate school systems,” and he asked whether the county “would be better served by one elected chief executive, rather than a board of three commissioners.”

This week, Goodnight said the first task will be to decide the best way of appointing a citizens committee to make non-binding recommendations.

“I think it worked well when the governor put together the Kernan-Shepard committee. They don’t call it the Gov. Daniels’ consolidation plan, because the committee made recommendations independently,” Goodnight said.

“I think it’s important to put the elected officials away from it, and get a different set of eyes. If you put the same people in the same room, with the same discussions, you’ll probably get the same result.”

Howard County Councilman Paul Wyman said the community needs to move forward on the issue.

“This can provide a great opportunity, not just for streamlining government, but also an opportunity to save money,” Wyman said. “The challenge is to get the politics and personalities out of it.”

While an appointed committee could perform the preliminary work of identifying overall goals, elected officials would still have veto power over the process.

Under the framework of 1362, local governments wanting to consolidate services first take individual votes. Once all of the governing boards or councils involved agree to take certain steps, then a second citizens committee would be appointed to iron out the details.

The final package of consolidation measures, after being approved again by the affected governing bodies, then go to the voters in a referendum.