City / County Consolidation
There are many citizens that have expressed an interest in the city and county governments consolidating into one entity. This was previously tried in 1999 but the county citizens voted the proposal down. It passed in the city but lost in EVERY precinct in the county. In this post, I am going to try to detail some thoughts, concerns, and suggestions on consolidation.
Personally, I have not made up my mind. I see some benefits and some concerns with this proposal. I will attempt to break down both my concerns and the potential benefits in this post.
Benefit: SIZE Since we are only 4,000+ in the city and 8,000+ in the county (excluding the city), it probably makes since for a community our size to consolidate. There is no need to fight over resources when there are so few resources to go around. I can see an advantage when applying for grants or when presenting ourselves to a potential industry when we can present ourselves as 12,000 strong rather than 4,000 strong. For example, when we apply with DCA for a grant, one of the “blanks” is how many people will this impact. Indicating 12,000 rather than 4,000 has got to carry weight.
Benefit: Cooperation Again, when presenting ourselves to potential industries, I think consolidation will show a spirit of cooperation that would please a prospect. And, although the city and county currently get along fabulously, there is no guarantee in the future if this will be the case. We all hear of communities (read MACON) that continually fight over LOST (Local Option Sales Tax), SPLOST (Special Purpose Local Option Sales Tax), and other shared revenues. They also continually bicker over shared expenses.
Benefit: Savings By reducing the amount of duplicated services, consolidation should (at least on paper) save money. However, in our situation, this will not be a significant advantage. Since 1999, the city and county have worked together to consolidate services. We are already functionally almost consolidated. Currently, Tax Collections, Codes Enforcement, Animal Control, Recreation, 911, Emergency Management, Fire and Police/Sheriff are already consolidated. Most all “savings” would already be in these departmental consolidations. There still might be a little overlap in the Road Departments and some in administration. We should see a savings in some areas like Audit work and bookkeeping. We should see a little savings in areas like legal and other professional fees.
Benefit: Customer Service By combining governments, citizens will have ONE LOCATION to do all of their municipal/governmental business. I don’t see this as a huge issue now and if there are areas where customer service can be consolidated, we can certainly do this with or without consolidated governments.
Benefit: Safety in numbers We are one of only 7 or 8 counties in the state that has a SOLE COMMISSIONER form of county government. One person making all the decisions for 12,000+ folks. This can be an advantage when it comes to swift decision making, but it also has limiting problems as well. When you have three, five, or seven commissioners, you have a diversity of thoughts and ideas influencing the decision making process. One person does not have the power, rather it is split among several. One of the benefits of consolidation would be removing this amount of “power” from one person. The fear is always that with one election, we could get a “bad” county commissioner and be in trouble. The opposite side of this coin however, is when 12,000+ people (potentially) vote “at large” in an election, it would be rare that we get a true “bad” commissioner. You have a much larger potential of getting a “bad” commissioner within one district when you have small districts of which potential qualified candidates must be chosen. So, I am not convinced that your odds of getting a majority “bad” (in a multi-commissioner government) would be less than the odds of getting one “bad” (with a sole commissioner). However, a multi-commissioner approach allows for a more diversity representation in government. Different races, ages, genders and backgrounds can all come together and allow this “diversity” to influence the decisions made for a diverse group of people. But again, this also means that within one small district the ability to find a “good” qualified, candidate is much less.
However, having separate city/county governments provides a small “check and balance”. When there is a good project that the county is not enthusiastic about, the city can step in and fund/work that project. and visa-versa.
Benefit? Franchise fees It has been suggested that one of the benefits of consolidation is that the consolidated government can collect franchise fees from utilities such as cable companies that the county is not currently eligible to receive. However, read this as “increased tax”. This is not “newly found” money. This franchise fee will simply be added to a county resident’s utility bill and passed along from the utility to the consolidated government. But regardless of whether the utility or the government is “collecting” the money, it is still a hidden tax. This potential revenue source, if utilized, would be a hidden tax to our county residents. Call it a fee or a tax, the end result is money flowing out of a citizen’s pocket into the government’s pocket.
Concern Tax Equity One of the main challenges of consolidation is maintaining a tax equitable situation between city residents (or urban services tax district as the city would be known under consolidation) and county residents. Actually, tax equity is easier under a consolidated government, but we certainly do not want an immediate “tax shift” from one group to the other. My understanding, and this is subject to change based on legal opinions, is that the urban services tax district (city) cannot be charged taxes (over and above what this group already pays in their county taxes) for any service that they are not receiving an increased benefit level from. For example: Currently the city and the county each pay about $72,000 for recreation services. We have an intergovernmental agreement that each pays 1/2 of the expenses of the recreation department. However, under a consolidated government, the county would have to pay the entire $144,000 because a child of a city resident receives exactly the same level of benefit as a child of a county resident. So this tax burden would “shift”. And there are currently SEVERAL intergovernmental agreements that would probably result in those taxes “shifting” to the county. HOWEVER, before each of you county residents grab your pitchforks and march on the courthouse and vote down consolidation, let me explain further. There are also other ways to pay for these services without property taxes being affected. For example, the county currently shares all LOST (Local option sales tax) revenue with the city 50/50. Well, if we are shifting $72,000 of the recreation expense to the “county” then we could let an additional $72,000 of this LOST revenue remain with the county. The question is this: Is there enough non-property tax revenue to handle all of the legal “shifting” of “taxes”? I don’t currently know the answer to this question, but this is one of the questions that the city/county consolidation study committee is being asked.
To put this another way, I keep being told that “the city can continue to pay exactly what the city has been paying and the county continues to pay what the county has been paying”. Well, not exactly. My understanding is that while some “shifts” in expenses will be necessitated by law, there may be “shifts” in revenues as well to account for each dollar so that the current “tax burden” of the city and county residents do not significantly change. This is simply a concern/question that must be answered before consolidation hits the balloting box.
Concern: Grants The city has been very aggressive over the last few years in obtaining grant funding for our community. The county also has received some grants. While my understanding is that a consolidated government can apply for either “city only” or “county only” eligible grants, there COULD be times that we would only get ONE grant rather than the potential of TWO grants that is possible with TWO entities applying for the same grants. For example, each couple of years, the city and county each apply for DCA (Department of Community Affairs) CDBG (Community Development Block Grants) for such things as improving infrastructure within our community. Potentially, we lose out being able to EACH get these $500,000 grants. However, in practicality, I do not know how often we each apply for and receive the exact same grants. While on “paper” this may be a very legitimate concern, in “practice” it may seldom if ever actually happen.
Concern Cost of consolidation Harry Hayes, a consolidation consultant with the University of Georgia, indicates that the costs to consolidate governments may be substaintial. The goal would be to offset these initial costs with the “savings” associated with the consolidation of services. However, since we have ALREADY consolidated most of our services, we will not have these savings available to offset the initial costs. I do not know what these initial costs are, but in this economy, we do NOT need to increase the tax burdens to our citizens to pay for a consolidation that will probably NOT result in substantial monetary savings. So the level of these initial costs must be determined and funding sources indicated.
These are just a few of the immediate benefits/concerns that come to mind. There are also lots of QUESTIONS that simply must be answered as we explore the possibility of consolidation. For example,
1. How will the districts be determined? Will they each consist of city/county residents or will some be all city or all county. In the 1999 proposed districts, they took the approach of pie shaped districts originating in the center of the city. This way, each district had both city and county residents. The concern with this approach is that potentially, you could have all “county” residents determining the tax rates for the “city” residents. This scenario is not likely, but it is possible.
2. Will the districts coincide with the school board districts? For ease of elections and other matters, it would be great if the districts coincided. However, many people want only 5 seats in our future consolidated government, while the school board currently has 7.
3. How many commissioners will be elected? Again, some say 3, some say 5 and some say 7. This will have to be determined before we can send a charter proposal to our legislatures.
4. How will the commission chairperson be determined? Will the chair be elected from within the board or will the chair be elected “at large” by the community?
5. Type of government? Will the board be all citizens with outside full time jobs or will one or more (say the chair) be a full time administrator in the new government. Will a full time county manager be hired?
6. City ordinances? The city currently has a municipal court that hears cases regarding city-only ordinances. How will this be absorbed in the new government?
7. Current authorities, agencies, and committees: The city and county each have several of these entities that their future will need to be determined. Do they exist AFTER the consolidation or must they be reappointed based on the NEW makeup of the city/county?
8. Taxes? We want to know EXACTLY (or as close as possible) what the city residents will be paying under a consolidated government and what the county residents will be paying under a consolidated government.
9. Other entities: There are many organizations (like the Chamber of Commerce) that receive funding from both the city and the county. Will this be an area of “savings” for the government or will the combined government continue to pay to these organizations what they have paid in the past? Many of these organizations need every penny in order to survive. But by its very nature, consolidation suggests a reduction in these fees. So which will it be?
10. When do you consolidate?: With a county commissioner election looming on the horizon, when do we attempt to consolidate? It is the feeling of many that we simply cannot get it done by the November elections. The proposed charter would have to be approved by the state legislature as early as March of next year. The study committee simply will not be ready by then. If we wanted it done before the November election, we really should have started this over a year ago. And even if you got it on the ballot as early as June or July, qualifying for this office is in April. Who is going to run for an office (and pay the substantial qualifying fees) for a job that might not even exist by election time. Or who will run for an office that may only last a small portion of the proposed 4 year term? Do you consolidate at the end of the next term? one year in? two years in?
Bottom line: There are many more issues, concerns, questions that must be addressed. That is why the current city and current county governments have formed a joint consolidation study committee. Eight citizens from each have been appointed to study these issues in detail over the next few months. These citizens represent a broad cross selection of our citizenry. We have multiple genders, ages, and races. We have business people and agriculture people. We have number counters and some that think more broadly.
We have also given this body the tools to make wise decisions. They have legal representation to answer all of the legal implications of this proposed consolidation. They have an accountant on hand to run the numbers for them. They have representatives from GMA (Georgia Municipal Association – the group that represents cities across our state) and ACCG (Association of County Commissioners – the group that represents counties across our state) on hand. We have consultants and facilitators to help the process.
This is a HUGE issue facing our little community that will have FAR reaching impact and massive implications for our community, our children, and our future. It must be thoroughly studied and if done, done right!
I would love to know YOUR thoughts. Comment on this post, or email me privately (firstname.lastname@example.org). What other concerns should we be addressing? What other benefits do you perceive? What suggestions do you have on the process itself?
City of Hawkinsville, Commission Chairman