The Union Recorder

December 16, 2013

Government consolidation in neutral

Kyle Collins
The Union-Recorder

MILLEDGEVILLE —

Local City of Milledgeville and Baldwin County elected officials attended a Thursday joint meeting for a presentation and discussion of unification and functional consolidation at Central Georgia Technical College.

The amended foundation charter for a Milledgeville-Baldwin County, Georgia Unified Government wasn’t reviewed, as city and county officials seem non-committal on the issue.

More talk centered on the idea of functional consolidation agreements instead of a single government to provide more efficient service.

Carl Vinson Institute of Government representatives Dennis Epps and Harry Hayes placed the community’s unification talk into both a state and national perspective.

“Georgia leads the country in terms of consolidated governments that we have. We have eight now including Macon-Bibb County,” Hayes said. “We have a lot of situations in Georgia where cities and counties are providing very similar services.”

Hayes said it’s often difficult to create a charter that’s exactly what the people want, educate everyone about that charter and then have a majority of the people vote on it.

“We also lead the country in number of attempts at consolidation,” Hayes said Thursday.

County Commission Chairman Sammy Hall said the people want better service at less cost. Hall said the current charter doesn’t address the details to know “if we put it up for a vote and it passed, how much is it going to cost to implement?”

County Commissioner Tommy French said his research shows that Athens-Clarke County is still losing money.

“Functional consolidation is a lot simpler. Most people aren’t getting the gist that you have to make a charter. You are talking about making a new law,” French said.

French said the Augusta area still doesn’t have its tax districts correct.

State Rep. Rusty Kidd also weighed in Thursday.

“You can’t compare apples and oranges when you are looking at Baldwin County and any other larger county with multiple cities,” Kidd said. “Consolidation is not going to save money immediately. It will keep you from spending more money thus not having to raise taxes in the future.”

City Councilwoman Denese Shinholster said she “is sick and tired” about hearing about what other communities have done.

“What applies to others doesn’t apply to us here in Baldwin County because we do have big rural pockets and places where there isn’t enough population to make a difference where we are going to be required to provide services that will be very costly,” Shinholster said.

The councilwoman said economic development is not a reason to consolidate.

City Councilman Steve Chambers said the city has tried functional consolidation before.

“The thing about consolidation or unification is that when you jump in it you jump in it to make it work,” Chambers said. “Everybody has to work together. Functional consolidation starts out that way, but at some point in time, something gives and it splits apart.”

The law says one government body can’t bind another to such an agreement.

A unified government has the ability to collect franchise fees county-wide, where previously they could only be collected only in the city except for cable TV, according to Hayes.

“In most instances, it’s fairly significant,” he said.

Chambers said single government efficiency isn’t always gauged monetarily.

The foundation charter for a Milledgeville-Baldwin County, Georgia Unified Government was completed by the eight-member Unified Government Charter Writing Committee and released May 1. 

When the charter writing process began, the group solicited city and county government expertise though they received little feedback from elected officials.

The writing committee’s work toward letting citizens vote on government consolidation is ongoing.

“It’s taken what this community has done to get them back into the room and come up with something that we should have started with a long time ago,” charter writing committee chair Ken Vance said. “It’s in the eyes of the elected officials now. We will continue to take their suggestions and look at them if they will give us some other than just political posture.”

Changing the voting age, removing the commissioner at-large position, term limits and leaving the current county voting districts mostly untouched are some of the notable alterations since May.

Vance said the charter has been through four complete edits.

“I know there are some people radically opposed to any talk of this and that’s OK but say that,” Vance said. “Say I don’t care what you propose I’m not for it. I like that. Don’t make it about you. Let the public vote. When we think we as elected officials know more than the people know that put us there, it’s dangerous.”

Outside of charter critiques, Milledgeville Mayor Richard Bentley said questions remain about the difference of functional consolidation and complete unification. 

“We have not dispensed the document whatsoever. What we are doing as two boards of government is trying to get as much information as we can, so we can determine what needs to go into the document or do we need to take parts of the charter and put those into functional consolidation? We can’t go out and ask someone to vote for a document that we don’t know is reaching its full potential in achieving what we want,” Bentley said.

Hall said the charter committee has amended the nearly 60-page unifying foundation. The county commission believes it takes due time to undertake this project.

“Most people aren’t hung up on a consolidated government. They want more efficient services at less money. If we can do that by unifying services, we will accomplish what the people want and it would be a lot easier and perhaps less costly to do,” Hall said.

Bentley said this issue “is farther along than it’s ever been.”

“We are taking interest in it and going forward to see what’s best for the community,” the mayor said. “If someone says you wasted all the time and effort with that, it isn’t true. It’s pushing it along as it should.”