Rotary hears about government consolidation issues

Published 7:03 pm Tuesday, January 13, 2015

What will it take for the City of Bainbridge and Decatur County Governments to get along?

Harry W. Hayes, Senior Public Service Faculty from the Carl Vinson Institute of Government, Division of Governmental Services and Research, presented some possible solutions at Rotary this week. In attendance were county commissioners, the county administrator, city council members and the city manager, as special guests. Also present were some members of the Industrial Development Authority, including Rick McCaskill, executive director.

Following his introduction by Paul Trulock, Mr. Hayes proceeded to explain the various ways the Institute works to promote excellence in governments, concentrating on an overview of city/county consolidations in Georgia.

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Hayes was quick to explain that he was neutral on the subject of government consolidations, being neither for it, nor against it; but that he wanted only to provide information that might be helpful to the local governments to achieve their goals.

He defined the types of services normally provided by each governmental entity saying that the counties have fixed boundaries and are provided with state mandated functions, while cities traditionally provide urban type services, with higher levels of service where the population justifies increased cost of those services.

Through the years a lot of competition has grown between local governments and they are increasingly crossing paths, according to Hayes. In 1972 the state of Georgia amended its constitution to allow counties to provide the same services as cities, thus accommodating the needs of suburban populations.

Some comprehensive issues, such as LOST and SPLOST already mandate coordination between the governments.

There are two types of consolidation — Functional consolidation – where the two entities agree to consolidate on selected services, perhaps purchasing of supplies and services. There is also full government consolidation, where the two existing governments are both disbanded, and a brand new form of government takes their place. In the state of Georgia eight city/county consolidations currently exist, while many others have attempted various forms of consolidation.

In Georgia it is necessary that a majority of the voters in a county vote to form a consolidated government.

Although a large number of attempts have been made only eight have been successful. Hayes allowed that it only passes on the first vote 25 percent of the time. It usually takes repeated elections to bring it about.

Hayes’ presentation addressed some of the questions and answers that usually arise.

• Will it save money? A question he said was difficult to answer, but one study found after two years a lower rate of increase in budgets.

• Does it effect schools? They are not impacted.

• Do Employees lose jobs? That depends on the reorganization plan. Usually it means shifts and changes of positions, as there are still all the same tasks to be performed.

• Are there differences in pay? It becomes a balancing act.

• How does it effect employee benefits? That again, depends on how the charter is written under the consolidation.

• How does it impact the levels of service? It’s a process of deciding what to provide, for example garbage collections.

• What about the Sheriff and other officers? No difference, as sheriff is mandated by the state. Cities must address if they want to continue the police department, and most communities designate what they want. Cities can create police departments, but counties cannot without a referendum. The Sheriff still continues. It is written into the consolidation plan.

• What happens to the smaller cities in the county? Do they have to be involved? They can choose not to be in the consolidated plan.

The benefits given were increased efficiency, some benefits in grant applications, one-stop economic development efforts, benefits of economy of scale, additional revenue from franchise fees..

On the down side, bigger is not always better, there are transition costs, competition is sometimes a good thing, typically it decreases the number of elected offices and there is always the fear of change.

Following the adjournment of the regular Rotary meeting, attendees were invited to remain behind for a more in-depth question and answer period. Out of those attending the luncheon meeting, only seven remained. They were: Thad Pettyjohn, Paul Trulock, Basil Lucas, Dean Free, Commissioner Butch Mosely,  Rick McCaskill and  Richard Youmans.

It was the consensus that communication between the city and county is at a standstill and the group discussed what next steps could be taken to remedy the situation. It was recommended a committee be formed to delve further into possible consolidation and also to provide more education of the public on these matters.