The unification of Athens and Clarke County has several similarities to and carries several cautionary examples for the proposed consolidation of Macon and Bibb County.
Some local officials have spoken of consolidation as a fresh start, a chance to get away from old governmental habits. But in Athens-Clarke County that clean slate itself caused some problems.
No one really knew how the new system would work because the traditions of operating the former two governments were gone, said Douglas Smith in a detailed report he wrote in 1997, nearly eight years after the consolidated government formed.
Smith, a former Athens-Clarke County employee whos now assistant city manager of Delray Beach, Fla., examined the unification process and its results.
Athens and Clarke County voters, like Macons and Bibbs, had mulled consolidation for a long time. The county was urbanizing, but the city of Athens itself had a slowly decreasing population base, Smith said. Plenty of existing cooperation on services kept consolidation in peoples minds.
A 1969 referendum passed in the city of Athens, but it failed in the unincorporated area by a wide margin. A second try in 1972 brought similar city results and a better, but still failing, showing in the county. Results didnt change much in a 1982 attempt, but the plan put forward in 1989 by a 15-member charter commission fared better.
The final referendum for unification was held Aug. 7, 1990. Fifty-eight percent of city voters and 59 percent of county voters approved.
A new government of a mayor and 10 commissioners was elected in November 1990 and took office Jan. 1, 1991, according to information from Jeff Montgomery, Athens-Clarke County media analyst.
The first consolidated budget went into effect July 1, 1991. It took two years to reconcile former city and county ordinances; employee pay was finally equalized in 1995, and the last departments merged in 1996. That matched the schedule laid out in the new charter pretty closely.
But it wasnt all smooth sailing, especially in light of the brief, five-month interval between voting and the start of the new government. Most of the newly elected commissioners hadnt held office before, Smith said.
The commissioners did not really trust each other, he said.
Nevertheless, they were the ones who wound up going over every ordinance passed by the city and county to see how, or if, they should be applied anew.
There were more than 600 conflicting ordinances, said Gwen OLooney, a former Athens City Council member who was countywide mayor for the first eight years after consolidation. But once again, residents had plenty of input, and the task was split into 10 major areas for people to work on, she said.
Our community really had ownership and understanding of the changes that we made, OLooney said.
Keeping the process open helped people understand how big the task was, and involving residents directly in the merger is very important, she said.
One of the things that was very interesting was how much time it took to create a new government out of two governments, said Cardee Kilpatrick, a former Athens council member elected to the new Athens-Clarke County Commission. I think we met every single day.
Many of the newly elected officials were retired, so they had the time. But the amount of work needed would be hard on anyone who still held a regular job, she said.
For people like Kilpatrick, who had dealt exclusively with city or county affairs before, some of the new functions were surprising -- such as, for her, overseeing a jail.
The new Athens-Clarke County charter didnt mandate budget cuts. It just required the new budget not to be higher than the previous two governments combined, plus inflation. But even that mild limitation was a barrier to addressing salary concerns in the early years, Smith said.
Despite the difficulty, he concluded that disparities in pay should be dealt with as soon as possible.
Employees are willing to make some sacrifices, but after an extended period of time without adequate changes, they begin to become disgruntled, Smith said.
It was difficult enough to provide good service without major spending cuts, OLooney said. The Macon-Bibb consolidation proposal requires cutting the combined budgets by 20 percent over a 5-year span, adjusted for inflation. No cuts are required the first year, but about $8 million would have to be cut in each of the next four years.
To say youre going to cut at a time when youre making change, I think people should be content with keeping spending the same when youre making a big change, OLooney said.
It cost about $470,000 to unify Athens and Clarke County governments, for such things as new police uniforms and personnel handbooks, finance system changes and revising ordinances.
Total spending rose nearly 8 percent in the six years after consolidation, but that was about a third slower than the increase for the five previous years. And property tax rates dropped to below the prior rates in the city or county.
All former city and county employees kept their jobs and were needed because the local population kept growing and the new service area was larger, Smith said. Eight years after consolidation, the number of government employees had actually risen by 11 percent.
Unifying the sheriffs office and police department was tough, Smith said. City police were more service oriented, doing intensive patrols and dealing with more violent crimes. Sheriffs deputies had thinner coverage and dealt mostly with property crimes.
The real problem was that the two departments were hesitant about unifying, Smith said. At meetings, officers from the former two departments would voluntarily sit on opposite sides of the room.
Eight years later, police coverage was more evenly distributed, but the merger had exacted a price, he said.
A large number of officers have left the department since unification, Smith said.
That didnt happen just in the police department, OLooney said.
I think that we were surprised at the number of veteran administrators that took advantage of our early retirement program, she said. That caused concern, but the consolidated government ended up with a rejuvenated, more flexible work force, OLooney said.
Smith concluded that merging departments should get as much advance planning as possible, but even then, the union shouldnt be sudden.
Merging departments around a year after consolidation approval is probably a good minimum time frame, he said.
One bonus of consolidation, for which Macon-Bibb proponents also hope, was creating a more diverse and sustainable tax base, being able to coordinate services and draw on a wider network of resources, OLooney said.
Its a more stable economy than you had before, she said. We really believe consolidation served us well.