The idea to merge the Hall County and Gainesville governments has been floating around for decades but is now taking on new life.
Revelations of recent infighting among leadership in the city’s police department and dwindling morale in the fire department have prompted county commissioners to begin beating the drum on consolidation once more.
County officials said a merger would save taxpayers money by shrinking the size of local government and eliminating duplication of services.
While city officials have said they are open to discussing the idea, it is clear they are not really keen on it.
Still, the idea’s history in Hall County, and the recent merger of the city of Macon and Bibb County governments, warrant consideration of what a merger would entail and how it might be accomplished.
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.
The study, however limited in scope and outdated, remains a starting point for discussion — as does the new Macon-Bibb County government, which voters there approved in 2012 and which took effect at the beginning of the year.
“Not only does it get everybody on the same page, but it has three remarkable benefits,” Macon-Bibb Mayor Robert Reichert told The Times.
Reichert said 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 County) and remove the duplication of services, such as law enforcement or emergency medical operations.
Moreover, Reichert said there is more accountability to taxpayers in a merged government, where competing agencies can no longer point the finger at one another for any failure in service delivery.
But for all the purported benefits, Reichert said there are many obstacles to overcome.
“You’re always going to have a turf war,” he said, adding that people in positions of power are sometimes hesitant to relinquish control or are wary about change.
To help alleviate this tension, a transition task force was created to work through the major sticking points of consolidating Macon and Bibb County.
Protecting employees’ pensions was a major concern, and the task force ultimately decided to allow current workers to retain their existing plan while any new workers would be lumped into a new benefit plan.
“That was a huge area of concern for a lot of employees,” Reichert said.
Another point of contention involved the responsibilities of the sheriff.
There was debate, Reichert said, about whether the sheriff’s office would be relegated only to its constitutional duties — operating the jail, managing the courts — or whether it would be the supreme law enforcement arm in the newly merged government.
Ultimately, it was decided that Macon-Bibb would have a “super-sheriff,” Reichert said, with the sheriff’s office handling criminal investigations and all other law enforcement duties.
Finally, a major concern centered on ensuring minorities had equal and fair representation in the merged government.
Reichert said minority populations are larger in incorporated areas such as the former city limits of Macon, and that there were concerns that the merger — which effectively extended the city limits to the county line — would disenfranchise black and Hispanic voters.
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 fairly evenly mixed.
The result, Reichert said, is that there are four minorities represented on the nine-person county Board of Commissioners.
It’s no secret that Hall County and Gainesville city officials have butted heads over the years.
Issues like LOST revenue, or “island” annexations, have pitted the two against one another time and time again.
And the same is true when it comes to talk of merging the two governments.
Hall County commissioners told The Times that they roundly support the idea, primarily because they believe it would improve services while reducing costs.
But Gainesville leaders would rather have discussion about consolidation die down.
In an April 2011 letter to county officials signed by then-Mayor Ruth Bruner, then-Mayor Pro Tem Danny Dunagan and council members George 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.
Meanwhile, Reichert said merging Gainesville and Hall County governments could repair any political fractures between the two while also making taxes for all residents more equitable.
“My impression is that Gainesville and Hall County is a lot like Macon and Bibb County,” he said, adding that consolidation can make Gainesville “a stronger hub city for the North Georgia area.”