Member counties in nearby commissions
Georgia Mountain RC: Banks, Dawson, Forsyth, Franklin, Habersham, Hall, Hart, Lumpkin, Rabun, Stephens, Towns, Union, White
Atlanta RC: Cherokee, Clayton, Cobb, DeKalb, Douglas, Fayette, Fulton, Gwinnett, Henry and Rockdale, city of Atlanta
Northeast Georgia RC: Barrow, Clarke, Elbert, Greene, Jackson, Jasper, Madison, Morgan, Newton, Oconee, Oglethorpe, Walton
When things aren’t working out, sometimes it is best to try something different. At least that’s Hall County’s view.
The county’s Board of Commissioners is looking into leaving the Georgia Mountains Regional Commission over a disputed additional charge of $5,000.
A regional commission offers counties individual support as well as regional planning. State law requires counties to belong to one of Georgia’s 12 commissions, but does not mandate which one they must belong to.
The GMRC requested $142,936 from Hall County for 2009 and $147,617 for 2010, citing population growth as the need for additional funding.
The county has made major cuts in all departments for its 2010 budget and is not willing even to match the money it gave the agency last year.
The county instead tried to offer the regional commission $1 per capita, or $134,197, which is $13,000 less than requested for 2010.
It did not go over well.
GMRC Executive Director Danny Lewis said it wasn’t an option for the county to choose what to pay. The other 12 counties in the regional commission pay $1.10 per capita.
Hall Commission Chairman Tom Oliver sits on the board of the regional commission. At its last meeting, he proposed lowering the per capita rate for all member counties to the state minimum of $1. He was voted down 46-1.
“A lot of them are northern counties and they get the services,” Oliver said. “And they pay less.”
For many smaller counties, regional commissions serve as a planning staff, said Jim Dove, immediate past president of the Georgia Association of Regional Commissions and executive director of the Northeast Georgia Regional Commission.
“We work to support local planning departments,” Dove said. “A lot of times especially in rural areas, they don’t have a large staff that can go out there and work on those ordinances and do all the surveys, determine what the land uses are. ... We look at ourselves as an annex to every city hall and every courthouse in our region when it comes to things of that nature. We’re part of their staff.”
Many in Hall County feel the county’s large staff precludes the need for the GMRC to perform those duties.
“We just don’t think they’re doing that much work for us,” Commissioner Ashley Bell said.
But Dove said regional commissions not only work with smaller counties on individual needs and technical assistance, but are responsible for carrying out regional plans. He said his regional commission recently brought four counties together to work on water supply issues.
“It’s incumbent upon us ... to balance our program of work so we can be valuable to each of our local governments,” Dove said. “In this area we’ve got a four-county group that includes Athens-Clarke, Barrow, Jackson, Oconee counties, all of which are very rapidly growing counties, that have come together under our hospices and formed an authority and built a reservoir to supply water to those four counties.”
A county has the option of joining another regional commission as long as its borders are contiguous with another member county in the commission and its request is approved by the state legislature.
“We’re contiguous to the Atlanta Regional Commission and the Northeast Georgia Regional Commission,” Bell said. “We have two options technically.”
The county stands to save money by joining a commission that charges $1 per capita.
“Only two (regional commissions) pay more than $1 and we’re in one of them,” Bell said. “If we move to the Northeast Georgia or the Atlanta Regional, we’d be paying what we’ve asked to.”
Dove said that counties have switched commissions a few times.
“In the late ’90s, Newton County petitioned to join our organization, and then the following year, Jasper County petitioned to join our organization and both were allowed to do so,” Dove said. “So it’s something the Department of Community Affairs would look at the merits of the application and make their recommendations to the General Assembly.”
Dove said counties request to change regional commissions when they feel their interests more closely align with another.
“What it comes down to a lot of times is having mutual interests, mutual issues that they can work on together, be it water, transportation, things of that nature and it just becomes more of a fit,” Dove said. “You want to work toward regional solutions to the problems and bring about the most cost-effective and efficient way to do things.”
Regional commissions have undergone many changes over the last 50 years. Just this year, their names were changed and some were reorganized.
“For 20 years, we were known as regional development centers until this year, of course; effective July 1, we became known as regional commissions,” Dove said. “There were 16 regional development centers. There was legislation passed in the 2008 session of the General Assembly that left eight of the boundaries the same, but eight were merged into four around the state.”
All 12 regional commissions in the state now include a population of at least 300,000 and at least one metro area.
“Prior to that you had regional organizations as large as the Atlanta Regional Commission, which may have 4 million people or so, but you had some in some areas of the state that had maybe 100,000 people. We wanted to get everybody on a more level playing field,” Dove said.