State Sen. Brad Ashford is pitching a plan that could return some local control to Elkhorn while still carrying out an Omaha-Douglas County merger.
The idea isn't to undo the annexation of the city of Elkhorn, said Ashford, who is running for Omaha mayor. But he said he sees a way to give smaller communities — such as Elkhorn, Bennington, Ralston, Valley and Waterloo — leeway to operate their own government services amid a merger.
Ashford said he sees now as a good time to keep pushing a merger, both because he believes it could help save money and because it could give those smaller communities a chance to share services while keeping some of their own identities.
Ashford's merger plan could give individual cities the option to keep some services, from street or police departments to zoning rules, while also paying into the larger county tax pool.
“The magic is you reinvigorate Elkhorn as a separate community,” he said. “If we did offload some (government functions), we could ask what would you like to do internally, within Elkhorn.”
Ashford says he has been working on the merger idea for more than 20 years. In the Legislature, he's raised the issue a handful of times, most recently with a bill that would create a commission to draw up and review such a proposal before it went to voters. It would also adapt an 11-year-old law that allows for mergers by taking out a rule that allows voters in rural areas to halt a merger if they don't support it.
So far, the plan has failed to pick up much steam — just like a long list of similar plans that have been pitched by Omaha mayors and other lawmakers over the past several decades.
Ashford said the smaller-community strategy has worked elsewhere, including Louisville, Ky., which merged with Jefferson County in 2003. When residents there balked at merging fire services, officials wrote up a plan that provided for 19 separate fire districts. Some small communities also kept their own police and public works departments.
The amount of taxes residents would pay to the new countywide government would vary, depending on the number of services they received. The government would be run by a board with representatives from each community.
Ashford said he believes there is support for his idea around the county, particularly in the Elkhorn area. There, he said, some residents have raised concerns about zoning rules since the city became part of Omaha in 2007.
But a merger doesn't have support from everyone in that community.
Calvin Bull, an Elkhorn school board member and one of the residents who sued to block the annexation, said he doesn't believe people in other small communities want to become part of a larger government. And he's not sure the potential to get back some services would make up for what already happened.
“I'm not for it,” he said. “I don't think bigger is better. I think local control is best. If I wanted to live in a big city, I'd live in New York.”
Ralston Mayor Don Groesser said he's carefully reviewing Ashford's plan to see if it would be a good fit for his city.
He recently took a trip to Louisville with Ashford to talk to local officials about the merger in that community, and he said he saw how such a deal could provide some advantages for each community. But Groesser said his city does well with its own services, including its volunteer fire department, and he's not sold on a merger.
“We don't have a lot of reason to change,” he said.
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