Consolidated city-county governments in Georgia
— Echols County
*Macon and Bibb County may join those ranks if voters approve a merger plan in July.
As it turns out, a discussion about uniting can be pretty divisive.
That seems to be the case with the Hall County Board of Commissioners’ most recent overtures about a consolidation between Hall County government and the city of Gainesville.
After a proposal from Commissioner Craig Lutz to engage the city in talks about merging governments, the commission agreed to informally approach Gainesville City Council.
Each commissioner spoke in favor of considering some form of consolidation — either through cooperation on specific services or merging the entire governments — as a way to improve services and save taxpayers money.
It’s not the first time the idea has come up.
There’s a long history of chatter about merging Hall County and its largest city. Attempts to move beyond talk have been unsuccessful to date, and the latest revival of the topic isn’t beginning well, either.
Despite the commissioners’ attempts to diplomatically engage the city, the City Council has been fairly blunt about their disinterest.
“It will be a one-sided conversation with the county doing the only talking,” Mayor Danny Dunagan told The Times.
At this point, city officials say they don’t see what they would gain from consolidation. The city also resubmitted a letter to commissioners, which was originally written almost a year ago as the county was discussing consolidation on the eve of a difficult budget process.
The city’s letter, dated April 28, 2011, and signed by every City Council member, doesn’t mince words. “While we sympathize with your situation and appreciate your admiration of the city and the higher level of service we provide, the city has no intent of pursuing such an arrangement,” it read. “To suggest that we consider diluting the services we provide and possibly jeopardize our financial soundness because the county is having budget difficulties is not acceptable.”
Despite past failures to consolidate, Commissioner Scott Gibbs said there are cost savings to be had by all.
“There’s just so much duplication of services,” he said.
He starts by pointing to the separate fire services provided by the county and the city.
“How many fire inspectors do you need?” he asked. “How many assistant chiefs do you need?”
Gibbs argues that by combining the governments, fewer administrative positions would be needed, which would equal a cost savings to all taxpayers.
Voters OK’d idea once
The kind of argument put up by Gibbs, has continued to pop up for decades, but the last time both parties seriously looked at consolidation was in the 1990s.
In a nonbinding ballot referendum in 1992, 65 percent of Hall County voters favored a study of a city-county consolidation. That vote included broad support from the voters in Gainesville, too.
The question asked, “Should Hall County study the following: merger of city and county services, unification of city and county governments and unification of city and county school systems?”
In response, commissioners put together a committee in 1994 that focused on merging services rather than completely consolidating governments.
The report was somewhere between inconclusive and skeptical about the benefits of consolidation. After looking at combining public works, fire, parks and law enforcement services, there was little consensus about merging them. Ultimately, the study led to little change, other than consolidating jail services under the Hall County Sheriff’s Office.
Al Crace, Gainesville city manager at the time of the study, said there turned out to be little “broad appeal” for the idea.
In fact, since the 1990s some of the partnerships between the two governments have actually fallen apart.
Gainesville-Hall County used to share a human resources department and a planning and zoning department.
Disagreements between elected officials led to the breakups.
Dunagan said those breakups were forced by the county and cost Gainesville taxpayers nearly $1 million.
Others have merged
In many areas of the state, city-county consolidation has been a hot topic. Macon and Bibb County voters will vote on a plan in July to consolidate governments. All told, there are seven consolidated city-county governments in Georgia, including Athens-Clarke County.
Crace, now county manager in Charlton County, has had experience with the effects of consolidation. He served as Athens city manager before it merged with Clarke County and as city-county manager afterward. In between, he was Gainesville’s city manager during Hall County’s consolidation study.
While considering Athens-Clarke a successful model, he said there are some distinct differences between Clarke and Hall.
For one, he said, Clarke is fairly compact. It’s the smallest county in the state in land mass, and much of the county already was urbanized when it merged. That homogenous demographic, he said, allows for “much easier transition” than one with a mixture of both urban and rural areas like Hall.
Hall’s varied demographics can make it harder to divide some services, such as fire, Crace said.
And that doesn’t even include figuring out where municipalities like Flowery Branch and Oakwood fit in.
While Crace said consolidations can ultimately be good for many communities, it’s also a “painful” process with a lot of up-front costs, including navigating pay and benefit differences in government payrolls.
“In these economic times it would be hard to handle it,” Crace said. “You can’t expect big success in year one and two.”
Referendum may go on November ballot
While Gibbs acknowledges savings would take time, he thinks taxpayers would reap the benefits within a few years.
But with the city signaling it won’t cooperate in talks, he’d like to put the question back to voters. Gibbs proposes a nonbinding referendum on the November ballot to ask if residents are interested.
“I’m never afraid to put anything on the ballot,” he said. “Let’s lay the facts out and let the voters decide.”
But for now, it’s looking doubtful the conversation has the legs to move forward.
Three commissioners appear unwilling to force the issue. Ashley Bell, Billy Powell and Chairman Tom Oliver have indicated they will proceed with caution.
And with Gainesville officials making their positions against consolidation clear, Bell — whose district includes much of Gainesville — said the county should instead focus on where the two governments can work together.
“If this is going to happen, it’s going to have to start with informal conversations,” he said. “There is going to have to be some trust-building there.”
Currently, the two governments are negotiating ownership of the old jail in midtown Gainesville and water rights to the Cedar Creek Reservoir. Their joint partnership in running Hall Area Transit is also up for discussion.
With that in mind, Bell said, pushing for a full government merger seems “ill-timed.”
“I would rather focus on the tangible issues,” said Bell, “instead of these sideshows where we really don’t have the power to make a real difference.”