Scott Smith, Kokomo Tribune Staff Writer

When Kokomo Mayor Greg Goodnight called for a local efficiency commission during Monday’s State of the City speech, he invoked former Gov. Joe Kernan and former Chief Justice Randall Shepard’s call to end the local government status quo.

“Indiana can either embolden itself, designing new arrangements for its future prosperity, or continue to trudge along under a system of government erected 150 years ago,” they wrote in an opening letter to the landmark Kernan-Shepard Report on Local Government.

Last month, Shepard was on hand when Boone County’s Eagle and Union township governments were formally consolidated into the town of Zionsville.

The event marked the first instance of voluntary consolidation under a 2006 state law directly inspired by Kernan-Shepard and referenced in Goodnight’s speech Monday.

Whether Kokomo and Howard County officials will go the same route remains to be seen, but there’s no doubt Goodnight’s address renewed discussion of local government reform.

The day after the speech, Howard County Councilman Paul Wymane-mailed county officials, urging them to move ahead on the commission. Howard County Attorney Larry Murrell began researching the provisions of the 2006 law.

And the local business community — including the non-elected community leaders who would likely be tapped to head up the commission — is ready for the discussion to move ahead.

“If you ask any business owner, they’d say, ‘We prefer you investigate it.’ On the other hand, if you can actually find more efficient ways to use our tax dollars, we’re all for it, because that’s what we’re asked to do in business,” said Jeb Conrad, president of the Greater Kokomo Economic Development Alliance.

Ahead of any consolidation effort, political concerns are present, with questions of fairness and equity to be answered, Howard County Council President Dick Miller said.

Goodnight posed numerous possibilities for government efficiency during Monday’s speech, but some of those efficiency ideas have been batted around for years without resolution.

“If we could set aside all of the headlines and political persuasions aside, then these things would move ahead,” Miller said. “That said, there are questions of equitable distribution. It would help if one didn’t come in trying to get income or new revenue, rather than to sit down and say, ‘This should happen.’”

Howard County Commissioner Tyler Moore said “every area the mayor mentioned merits looking at consolidation,” but echoed Miller’s concerns about politics versus policy.

“If it’s done right, it will work, but if it’s a lot of that same old stuff we’ve heard before, we’ll just be spinning our wheels again,” Moore said.

Despite those concerns, there was optimism among those interviewed that progress can be made.

“Maybe the time has come to talk about the city and county consolidating into one government, but the way to get there is incremental,” Howard County Superior 3 Judge Doug Tate said. “Leave the questions on whether to go to Unigov for the future. It would take a monumental legislative effort to go that route anyway. But if you got it, all of these [city/county] arguments would go away.”

Declining revenues are forcing local government to streamline, and city and county leaders are also coming off a successful joint effort to receive payment of $25 million in past-due property taxes from Chrysler LLC.

And Murrell said some of the areas of possible duplication could be addressed without the lengthy referendum process described in the 2006 law.

The two most recent examples are plans for a joint city-county dispatch service and plans for a joint stormwater control program.

Both services have already been discussed at length, but the stormwater agency is still being studied, while more than a decade of fruitless negotiations have surrounded calls for a joint dispatch.

Howard County Sheriff Marty Talbert said he doesn’t doubt a joint dispatch would save money, particularly on weekends, when Kokomo police dispatchers handle numerous calls while county dispatchers field far fewer.

“Somebody’s going to have to step up to the plate and say, ‘This is how it’s going to be,’” Talbert said. “Sometimes it seems to be easier to go with the status quo than to implement change.”

On Goodnight’s mention of two SWAT teams, both of which require significant investments in training, equipment and additional pay, Talbert was less hopeful.

“I’m not sure you can talk about combining some of our smaller resources, like SWAT, until these agencies combine,” Talbert said.

He mentioned the Indianapolis Metropolitan Police Department, which includes the now-consolidated Marion County Sheriff Department, but questioned whether the merger has resulted in significant cost savings.

Advocates of a consolidation commission suggest those issues — whether a consolidation will work, and whether it will save tax dollars — are exactly why a commission should be appointed.

In his speech, Goodnight said a commission, “with your elected officials playing only a supporting role,” was one way to avoid the disappointments of past consolidation efforts.

The non-binding commission recommendations would have to be approved by the same city and county elected officials who appointed the commission, and then voted on in a public referendum.

And, Goodnight indicated, the scope of the commission could be as broad, or as narrow, as the community dictates.

“This does not have to lead to full consolidation, or an Indianapolis-style Unigov system,” he said. “We can decide what kind of a community we will be.”