Although Macon and Bibb County are the two most prominent Middle Georgia governments considering consolidation, they arent the only ones examining a possible merger.
Pulaski County has already done a considerable amount of combining services with Hawkinsville, while the Milledgeville-Baldwin County Chamber of Commerce has formed a citizens committee to examine whether it makes sense for that city and county to consolidate.
According to the Association of County Commissioners of Georgia, the state currently has seven consolidated governments: Athens/Clarke County; Columbus/Muscogee County; Augusta/Richmond County; Cusetta/Chattahoochee County; Statenville/Echols County; Georgetown/Quitman County; and Preston and Weston, which have both merged with Webster County.
Bibb County voters will decide the consolidation issue at the polls July 31 and other Georgia counties could soon follow suit.
I heard Ware County and Waycross were looking at it, said Brooks Bailey, the sole commissioner of Pulaski County. Everyone is looking at ways of saving money and not duplicating services. ... Were ideally set up for it because we only have one incorporated city in the county.
Milledgeville Mayor Richard Bentley said similar reasons are why Baldwin residents are floating the idea.
Milledgeville is better suited than most, he said. When you have one incorporated city, you inherently duplicate services (with the county).
Through their service delivery strategy and attrition, Hawkinsville and Pulaski County have been merging services for years. In reality, the only thing standing in the way of true consolidation now is having the voters approve a new charter that would merge the governments, officials there said.
Bailey said a similar vote -- held before many of the services had been merged -- was held in 1999, and while Hawkinsville voters approved the measure, county voters narrowly defeated it.
Service delivery-wise, theres been a pretty controlled consolidation of everything, Bailey said. One entity or the other does it.
Services such as code enforcement were merged through service delivery, Bailey said. Larger agencies, such as the sheriffs office and city police department were merged in July 2010, and the two fire departments combined in July 2011.
The sheriff is the top law enforcement officer in Pulaski County.
Bailey, who wont seek re-election this year after serving 12 years as commissioner, said a new government likely would be set up to include five commissioners, with a professional manager to run day-to-day operations. Currently, Bailey is Pulaski Countys lone commissioner, while the city has five elected commissioners.
Laura Mathis, deputy director of the Middle Georgia Regional Commission, has assisted Pulaski residents in setting up an exploratory committee for consolidation, equally divided between city and county residents.
Governments are always looking at ways to share expenses and partner up, she said.
She noted that Pulaski County partnered with Dodge County to buy heavy equipment with which to pave roads.
Neither could afford it by themselves, she said. The environment right now is a sense of collaboration: Can we do better?
Hugh Coleman, chairman of the exploratory committee, said it appears the committee will recommend consolidation. When it comes to specific savings and cost benefits for a new consolidated government, a new consolidation committee would have to be appointed by the city and county should they move forward. The issue could be on the ballot as soon as 2013.
If the city and the county accept our report, the next phase would be to do the numbers, he said. I think people are more receptive to it. The city and the county are already taking steps into combining their services. A lot of the concerns (about consolidation) have been worked through. (The combined services) have been working nicely. Everything is going well. ... It certainly makes sense. Its a very logical thing for our community.
In Milledgeville and Baldwin County, the grassroots community group Partners For Progress has taken the lead at exploring the communitys consolidation options.
Unlike Pulaski County and Hawkinsville, Bentley said theres little in Milledgeville and Baldwin County that has been combined. Each government has its own responsibilities as determined by their service delivery strategy. For example, Bentley said, the county is in charge of recreation.
Bentley said at the most recent retreats involving the city, county and the chamber of commerce, there has been a greater focus on consolidation than in previous years.
Consolidation is an issue that usually comes up each year, but there was enough interest this time that (the chamber) created a committee that has done a lot of research on it, he said. Theyve had frequent meetings, and they are drafting a charter that will be presented to the city and county governments.
At the 2010 retreat, Chamber of Commerce CEO April Bragg said, a committee was formed that started researching the issue and consulted with the Carl Vinson Institute of Government at the University of Georgia -- which also has consulted on the Macon-Bibb County consolidation effort.
She said a charter writing, led by former Milledgeville City Councilman Ken Vance, is in the middle of a 12-month process to create a draft for a new charter. Bragg said while theres been high interest in the community regarding consolidation, people are taking a wait-and-see approach before deciding whether to support it fully.
I think its too early to say right now, she said. Theres definitely an interest in what its all about, but people are looking for more information.
Vance said his committee, which represents a broad spectrum of the community, hopes to have a draft of a new charter completed by January. In addition to looking at the Athens/Clarke County charter, the group also has examined the proposed new Macon/Bibb County charter.
That process will include deciding things such as how the new consolidated government would look, how the districts are divided and who would be the top law enforcement officer.
Bentley said he thinks the community is approaching the issue the right way, using the example of Athens and Clarke Countys consolidation as a blueprint. Bentley and Bragg both noted that Milledgeville is taking a different approach to the issue from Macon and Bibb County. Baldwins exploration of consolidation came from its citizens, while Bibbs came from elected leaders.
(The committee) has had open meetings, Bentley said. I think a committee comprised of citizens is the best way to go. Obviously, you have to look at all the pros and cons. The public needs to be educated since they will be the ones who will be deciding. If it garners enough support, well put it in a referendum. But even looking at the success of (a place) like Athens, its still going to prove to be a lengthy endeavor. ... The devil is in the details, and what this group is trying to find is all of the devils.
Just as Bailey noted in Pulaski County, Bentley said consolidation wont lead to immediate savings and cost-cutting measures.
If you are supporting (consolidation) from a money-saving standpoint, its not going to happen immediately, Bentley said. But Athens has proved you can (save money) in the long run.
Its a message that Vance said hes preached ever since he was elected to the Milledgeville City Council in 1981. He argued for consolidation in his first speech to the Rotary Club.
Im a believer in the most efficient form of government and saving the taxpayers money, he said. Any (city and county) that has gone to a consolidated government has never gotten away from it. ... At the end of the day, you have to let the public decide what sort of government they want.
To contact writer Phillip Ramati, call 744-4334.