Officials in cities across Hall County appear universally opposed to plans to study merging local governments.
“I would think we could … better serve our citizens rather than creating a larger, consolidated government that is further from the citizens,” Flowery Branch City Manager Bill Andrew said.
Residents across Hall County will be asked on Election Day whether they want a study conducted to determine the cost and feasibility of consolidating local municipal and county governments, just as was done in Athens-Clarke and Macon-Bibb counties.
If voters approve a study, 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 it.
Commissioner Scott Gibbs has said he brought up the issue because the county is losing revenue as cities continue to annex unincorporated lands. And with about 73 percent of Hall unincorporated, Gibbs said, the likelihood of continued annexations is very real.
Andrew, meanwhile, said cities better understand what their citizens need and want in the community, and partnerships, such as road and paving projects, can be beneficial to both governments.
Oakwood Councilwoman Sheri Millwood said she also believes working relationships between local governments could be frayed by the push to study consolidation.
“That’s exactly how I feel,” Millwood, a lifelong Hall County resident, said. “I’m not in favor of it in any way, shape or form.”
These concerns are partly why Hall County Commissioner Jeff Stowe, whose district includes most of Gainesville, voted against putting the consolidation question to voters even though he thinks a merger could benefit local taxpayers.
Calls to merge the Hall County and Gainesville governments have been echoing for years, with voters across Hall overwhelmingly passing a ballot referendum in March 1992 that approved a study of how merging governments and services might benefit taxpayers.
“The study has been done before,” Gainesville Mayor Danny Dunagan said. “It’s not beneficial. Macon was in trouble. The city of Gainesville is not in trouble. We’re doing just fine.”
Gibbs has also floated the idea of turning all of unincorporated Hall into a city and then consolidating it with county government as a way to shore up the tax base.
Residents of “Hall City” would effectively see no change in how government is operated and how services are delivered, but it would prevent local cities from annexing additional land, Gibbs said.
Proponents believe consolidation would be good for economic development in the region.
But opponents say consolidation only works when it ensures more efficient public services and lowers costs for taxpayers. And there is also a need to protect against diluting the political power of blacks, Latinos and other minorities.
Lula Mayor Milton Turner said it’s a waste of money during a council discussion of consolidation a few weeks ago.
Moreover, it is unclear if Lula would be a part of any government consolidation plan because it’s located in more than one jurisdiction. Part of the northeast Hall city lies in Banks County.
“The question posed on the ballot will be placed before all Hall County voters, which includes those in the cities,” Hall County Administrator Randy Knighton said. “As the proposed referendum question states, various options could be reviewed.”
The study would aim to clarify these parameters, but for city leaders across Hall, a lot remains undetermined.
Clermont Mayor James Nix said the county has not reached out to local municipalities to gauge their opinions on consolidation, leaving many questions unanswered.
“I don’t know what would come out of it,” Nix added. “I don’t even know what they want to do. I don’t think much of it.”