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Members of The Times editorial board include Publisher Dennis L. Stockton; General Manager Norman Baggs; Executive Editor Mitch Clarke; and Managing Editor Keith Albertson.
In a time when local governments continue to operate under tight budgets, with little relief in sight, it’s not surprising the issue of consolidation has again made its way to the front burner.
It’s nothing new for Gainesville and Hall County, which have shared some departments in years past and toyed with the idea of merging more services, from schools to fire departments and more.
Such a plan was studied in the early 1990s after voters approved of it in a nonbinding referendum, though it was found that some department mergers would not save money. Ultimately, few changes were ever made, and some of the sectors that were merged later split again.
Today, with tax revenues still soft and both governments struggling to balance their budgets and provide the level of services people expect, the notion has re-emerged. Recently, members of the Hall County Board of Commissioners suggested talks with Gainesville about joining forces. Not surprisingly, Gainesville officials responded by saying, “no thanks.”
The idea is worth considering to some degree, especially where there are departments that can easily be merged to eliminate duplicated services. But the idea of merging the two governments on a larger scale is one that no longer seems feasible or cost-effective.
When such talks first began years ago, Hall was a relatively small, rural county with Gainesville as its only population center of any size. Back then, it might have been easier to combine governmental services and schools under one umbrella for that reason.
But today, Hall is a county of 180,000-plus residents that continues to grow in all directions. And Gainesville, the county seat of 33,000 plus, has its own unique history, challenges and needs.
No longer is our county a rural outpost of chicken farms and forests. Large residential areas in South and North Hall have their own characteristics and priorities. Small hamlets like Flowery Branch and Oakwood have grown into larger towns with their own agendas. And while Lula, Clermont and Gillsville remain smaller, they proudly protect their autonomy for the folks who live there.
Our county now is too big, too diverse and too separated by differing interests to be best served by one large government. Most other city-county partnerships in Georgia are smaller in scale; Athens, for instance, is the single city of any size and dominates tiny Clarke County. Merging services there made sense.
In fact, some areas in metro Atlanta have gone in the other direction. In recent years, residents of neighborhoods in Fulton, Gwinnett and DeKalb counties have sought to create new cities with their own leaders, all feeling that centralized county governments don’t serve their interests. Merging city and county governments goes upstream against the desire to have a government that is smaller, more accessible and closer to the people it serves.
It’s also uncertain how much money might be saved by such a move. In the long term, it’s possible that some duplicated departments could be eliminated to ease expenses, but other agencies would need to grow larger to take on the additional constituents.
And in the short term, the challenge of reconciling different employee pay and benefits and paying attorneys to work out legal details would create a new set of up-front expenses neither government needs to incur in tough times.
What’s more, Gainesville has just changed its charter to begin electing a mayor. That revised system needs some time to settle into place before more drastic changes are applied.
For that reason and others, the city council was quick to squash any move toward consolidation. The mood isn’t right for such a plan considering the disagreements between city and county in recent years over the old county jail property downtown, which Gainesville now hopes to purchase, and water rights to the Cedar Creek reservoir in East Hall.
That’s not to say Gainesville and Hall should give up on the idea completely. Where they can find a way to easily blend departments and save money while providing the same level of service or better, they should pursue it.
County and city already cooperate in some ways, such as the transit bus system and community service center, but even that funding partnership now is on shaky ground. Any further attempts to merge services might best be approached down the road when budgets are looser and feelings less raw.
Anyway, both governments have other priorities right now that should take precedence before they spend too much time and money on an idea that is unlikely to ever happen.
Gainesville and Hall County are special places, each area of the city and county with its own special people, character and attributes. Creating governments that can serve those to the fullest extent should remain everyone’s goal.