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Ballot study would explore government merger for Gainesville-Hall County
Commissioners say visit to Macon-Bibb confirms their view blending services would save money
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A steady stream of early voters make their way to and from the Hall County Government Center Monday afternoon on the first day of early voting. Hall residents will be able to vote on a referendum that would create a study to explore merging the county and Gainesville city governments.

Voters Guide to Nov. 8 election

Hall County early voting

When: 8 a.m. to 5 p.m. weekdays through Nov. 4, Hall County Government Center, 2875 Browns Bridge Road, Gainesville

Saturday voting: 9 a.m. to 4 p.m. Oct. 29 at Government Center; East Hall Community Center, 3911 P Davidson Road; North Hall Community Center, 4175 Nopone Road, Gainesville; Spout Springs Library, 6488 Spout Springs Road, Flowery Branch

More info: For early voting info in other counties, visit the Secretary of State website.

Voters will have their say on Election Day about a little political posturing and a long simmering difference of opinion between Hall County and Gainesville officials.

That’s when results will be known from a referendum on the Nov. 8 ballot asking voters if they support a study on the cost and feasibility of merging the two governments.

County officials got a jump-start last week on understanding the practical and tangible applications of consolidation. Several commissioners and administrators traveled to meet with officials in Macon-Bibb County.

Voters in Macon-Bibb OK’d a merger between the city and county governments in 2012. The united entity began operating in 2014.

Hall Commissioner Scott Gibbs has been perhaps the biggest proponent of such a merger. He believes there is too much overlap in services that ultimately costs taxpayers.

“They went out of their way,” Gibbs said of the two days of meetings and tours with officials in Macon-Bibb.

Gibbs said county officials met with all department heads and were given tutorials on how the process and tough decisions involved in a merger work.

Macon-Bibb officials said they had been skeptical of consolidation, but their concerns have largely been addressed in the nearly three years since, according to Gibbs.

“They have no reason to lie or just say anything,” Gibbs said.

Calls to merge the Hall County and Gainesville governments are not new.

Gainesville would be most impacted by a merger, and city officials roundly oppose the idea. They point to a study in the early 1990s that delivered mixed results on the cost savings and efficiencies a merger might generate.

Competition between Hall and Gainesville has ebbed and flowed in intensity over the years. But there’s a lot at stake to fight over.

“We compete with them on almost everything,” Gibbs said, such as tax revenue, businesses, federal and state grants for parks, and other economic opportunities.

Other issues include annexations of unincorporated lands, which county officials say costs them tax revenue.

City officials have said their expertise lies in a stronger understanding of what residents in the area’s urban cores want in a community.

The demographics are different, and needs like public transportation, special events and new development are handled best at the hyper-local level, they argue.

Commissioner Kathy Cooper said the trip to Macon-Bibb was productive and beneficial even when the prospect of consolidation is removed from the equation.

“I learned a lot ... about improving government in general,” she said.

From novel ways to address vacant and blighted properties to efficient park construction, the trip was a “huge learning experience,” Cooper said.

Macon was in tight financial straits when its merger with county government came along. State legislatures required each government to slash its budget by 20 percent, and pooled resources, such as special purpose local option sales tax revenue, helped fill in budget gaps elsewhere.

If voters approve the study on the ballot, which is nonbinding, county officials said they would contract with an independent agency, such as the Carl Vinson Institute of Government at the University of Georgia, to conduct the review and present its findings.

Cooper said the trip reminded her of why she supported a study in the first place: It gives voters a chance to explore their options thoroughly before committing to a long-term plan to improve local government.

“It’s not up to me,” she said. “It’s up to everybody to guide your government.”

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