For city, county leaders, consolidation stance split largely along racial lines

mstucka@macon.comJuly 7, 2012 

  • Consolidation: Where the incumbents stand

    Joe Allen
    Lauren Benedict
    Sam Hart
    Robert Reichert
    Elmo Richardson
    Larry Schlesinger
    Nancy White

    Bert Bivins
    Lonzy Edwards
    Tom Ellington
    Henry Gibson
    Elaine Lucas
    Lonnie Miley
    James Timley
    Virgil Watkins

    Rick Hutto

    Couldn’t be reached for interview
    Ed DeFore
    Henry Ficklin
    Charles Jones
    Beverly Olson
    Frank Tompkins

Incumbents on Macon City Council and the Bibb County Board of Commissioners are sharply divided on the issue of consolidation, which voters will decide July 31.

One of the most frequent claims by supporters is that consolidating the two governments would allow them to speak with one voice.

But that’s actually one of the reasons City Council President James Timley said he’s “opposed, vehemently opposed” to the proposal.

The specifics of the bill, such as a decision not to merge agencies such as the city’s Industrial and Urban Development authorities, still leaves government fragmented, he said.

“We should be speaking with one voice, not 10 or 12,” said Timley, who also worries about the consolidated government’s ability to create tax districts, a strong mayor and a legislated demand for a 20-percent cut in government costs.

Others acknowledge flaws in the bill, which was crafted by Bibb County’s legislative delegation behind closed doors. But they’re unwilling to let those flaws spoil the first public vote on consolidation in a generation, on an issue that’s been talked about since at least 1923.

Savings or not?

Bibb County Commission Chairman Sam Hart said he acknowledges some arguments from Commissioner Lonzy Edwards, who said the finances won’t work. But Hart said he was swayed by recent efforts to land Tractor Supply Co., which said it was opening a distribution center in Bibb County because the community seemed to come together to support it.

“I don’t want to be on opposite sides of the mayor,” said Hart, the only commission member who represents all of Bibb County. “I think it’s important for this community’s progress to go forward as a team. ... The consolidation is the next direction we ought to go.”

Hart said the biggest challenges are financial, and he doubts the 20-percent cut is possible without reducing services. But the addition of more Tractor Supply-like jobs would help the tax base and make the finances work better.

“The push back that I hear from people concerned about it is, ‘Will it raise my taxes?’” Hart said. “And I truthfully can’t say it won’t.”

Commissioner Joe Allen said he also has problems with the bill, but he says voters should favor it. Governments have to find new ways of doing things and end double taxation and duplication, he said.

“If we want to save money in the long haul, in the long run, this is the way to go,” Allen said.

Commissioner Elmo Richardson said reducing the Macon and Bibb County governments from 21 representatives to 10 on a single board should help government run more effectively, without bouncing problems between the two existing boards. That may not cut costs, but it should reduce the rate of growth.

“Whether we actually decrease the cost, that remains to be seen. But as far as the cost going up, I think we can stabilize that,” Richardson said.

Councilman Henry Gibson said he turned against consolidation when he saw how Macon employees from five departments were transferred to Bibb County as new employees, a sign of flawed processes.

“It’s not going to work,” Gibson said. “It doesn’t save money.”

Councilman Virgil Watkins said consolidation supporters have been misleading when they talk about a tax decrease, which almost no one thinks is even possible. He also opposes having the sheriff as the top cop.

Councilman Tom Ellington said he’s opposed to consolidation because a two-thirds majority is required to pass a budget and because of a mandated 20-percent budget cut in the first four years.

“The particulars matter. If you look at the literature of consolidation, consolidation works sometimes and other times it doesn’t,” Ellington said. “It’s important to get the design right.”

Councilwoman Elaine Lucas predicted that consolidation would bring huge tax increases.

“I’m just totally against it,” she said. “It’s bad legislation. It’s so bad that it really never should have been sent back for us to vote on.”

Edwards, who represents east Bibb County, said consolidation is likely to unite people against Bibb County itself because unification would bring higher taxes and lower services.

“I see it is anti-growth and anti-economic development. When I talk to people in consolidated areas, they tell me that people are leaving consolidated areas,” Edwards said. “We’re going to always be eating Houston County’s dust if we choose to consolidate.”

Unity or division?

Councilwoman Nancy White said fragmented government has left some council members not wanting to cede Central City Park to Bibb County, despite an agreement saying it needs to go. Consolidation would erase those battle lines.

“It will absolutely distinguish us in the state. Someone has worded it this way: ‘It will speak loudly that Macon has its act together,’ ” White said.

Macon Mayor Robert Reichert said consolidation is the only way for Macon and Bibb County to succeed.

“It would create a more efficient, more effective and more equitably financed local government and, in short, I think it would do more than anything else to get rid of the ‘us versus them’ mentality that seems to be holding them back, us inside the city limits versus them in the unincorporated area, us in the north end of Macon vs. those in subsouth. It would put us all on one page with a single, common agenda.”

Reichert said divisive issues such as service delivery strategy and intergovernmental agreements would simply disappear.

“We have worked hard and managed to get good results, but it has not been easy,” he said.

Councilwoman Lauren Benedict said the community has too many voices, and consolidation could unite them.

“I think Macon and Bibb County are one community, and we have artificial boundary lines with the city of Macon,” she said. “We rise together or we fall together.”

Councilman Larry Schlesinger said consolidation would streamline government and help people think more regionally.

“Consolidated government is what’s needed to move forward into the future into this regional development and thinking,” he said.

Bibb County Commissioner Bert Bivins said he’s neutral on the principle of consolidation, but he plans to vote against the July 31 referendum because this version of consolidation would keep the community fractured.

“I think there are built-in problems,” Bivins said, that will cause further arguments. “I don’t get the impression it’s designed to make us one community.”

Few words

The Telegraph tried to reach the other council members, but were not able to contact Ed DeFore, Henry Ficklin, Charles Jones, Beverly Olson or Frank Tompkins.

Councilman Rick Hutto was still trying to make up his mind and get answers to his questions. He said he’s pausing particularly because government is supposed to be cut 20 percent, but no consolidation effort has saved that much.

“Is that measure in there almost as a bait and switch to get people to vote for it, almost as a ‘wink wink nod nod’ to get people to vote for it?” he asked.

Hutto also said he wonders about the goal of reducing the number of elected representatives. Macon City Council voted unanimously in 2006 to reduce its numbers to 11 instead of 15, but legislators blocked it.

The only other council member, Lonnie Miley, doesn’t want to say much of his stance on consolidation.

“I’m against it,” he said. Asked to elaborate, he did. “I am very much against it.”

To contact writer Mike Stucka, call 744-4251.

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