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Hall, Gainesville government merger will appear on fall ballot
Voters to decide on study to consolidate services
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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, as held in Athens-Clarke and Macon-Bibb.

The county Board of Commissioners voted 3-2 Thursday night to put the question to voters this November.

Commissioners Billy Powell and Jeff Stowe voted against the proposal, but each said they support the concept of consolidation.

Powell said he doesn’t believe city governments will get on board to make it happen, however, and that the study “will just sit on the shelf.”

Stowe said while consolidation could bring benefits to local taxpayers, he is concerned that an improving relationship with Gainesville officials could be harmed in the referendum process.

“We’re willing to listen,” Gainesville Councilman George Wangemann said. “But as far as consolidation is concerned, I’m generally opposed to that.”

Wangemann said consolidation only works when both sides want it, and when service efficiencies and cost savings can be proven.

Councilwoman Ruth Bruner said consolidation doesn’t make “any sense” for the city or the county.

Other counties and cities that have merged governments had smaller unincorporated areas and bigger urban populations.

And consolidation could upend collaboration on collecting impact fees and developing a “land bank,” Bruner said.

“I feel like in the last year we’ve gotten along pretty well with the county,” she added.

Commissioner Scott Gibbs said he brought the issue to the fore because the county is losing revenue as cities continue to annex unincorporated lands. Funding for schools and fire services, for example, are suffering as a result.

And with about 73 percent of Hall unincorporated, Gibbs said, the likelihood of continued annexations is very real.

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.

Commission Chairman Richard Mecum said consolidation would be good for economic development in the region.

“These big companies just want to deal with one government,” he said, pointing to Caterpillar’s emergence in Athens-Clarke as a prime example.

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.

Calls to merge the Hall County and Gainesville governments have been echoing for nearly a quarter century. County officials said a merger would save taxpayers money by shrinking the size of local government and eliminating duplicated services.

While Gainesville officials have said they are open to discussing the idea, it is clear they do not support it.

In March 1992, voters across Hall County overwhelmingly passed a ballot referendum that approved a study of how merging governments and services might benefit taxpayers.

The 15-member steering committee formed to conduct the study released mixed results.

Perhaps the biggest finding was that compensation differences between the governments for similar jobs needed to be addressed before proceeding with any joint delivery of services.

The study also found, for example, that the fire departments should not be merged unless the governments are first consolidated.

The effectiveness and efficiency of public works projects could be improved with a merger, the study reported, though it did not analyze what the cost savings might be.

Finally, no major savings were found to be had if the parks departments merged, and the study only analyzed savings related to law enforcement as a result of consolidating jails.

Macon-Bibb Mayor Robert Reichert told The Times in late 2014 that a merger can eliminate double taxation, end the fight over how to divvy up local option sales tax revenue, which has been contentious in Hall. It also would remove duplication of services, such as law enforcement or emergency medical operations.

Protecting employees’ pensions was a major concern. The task force ultimately decided to allow current workers to retain their existing plan while any new workers would be moved into a new benefit plan.

To avoid diluting the political power of blacks and Hispanics, the merged government created nine voting districts, four of which would have majority-minority populations, four of which would have predominantly white populations and one district that was evenly mixed.

In an April 2011 letter to county officials signed by then-Mayor Bruner, then-Mayor Pro Tem Danny Dunagan and council members Wangemann, Bob Hamrick and Myrtle Figueras, city officials made it clear they oppose merging governments.

“The city does not find that consolidation of services will be beneficial to our citizens or will result in the cost-saving measures one might assume,” the letter states.

The letter said previous attempts to merge a few services had cost the city nearly $1 million.

“We would further encourage you not to make consolidation of services a political issue,” the letter continues.

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