The way Macon-Bibb County consolidation supporters seem to tell it, you just about can’t throw a rock in Bibb County without hitting a politician who thinks the governments should be merged. It’s much harder to find two politicians who will agree on how to merge those governments and harder yet to find any who expect that consolidation will happen soon.
The roots of the struggle date to at least 1923, when a grand jury said a consolidated government would work better. But the governments are already stumbling around a tiny part of consolidation, which would shift the county’s two animal control officers out of the business and turn it all over to Macon. An animal control merger would be tough to pull off before a self-imposed Jan. 1 deadline while a third of the Macon City Council is on vacation and county commissioners predict ultimate failure, regardless.
As late as May, officials were talking about merging animal control by October. At that same time, they were also pushing for a 15-month extension on talks about sharing government services. Macon officials and Bibb County commissioners — along with tiny Payne City’s government — are eyeing a 10-year plan to merge all the departments until only the governments themselves remain to be consolidated.
But even strident consolidation supporters think the 10-year plan would have a rocky road. Distrust and political posturing may already be adding bumps, but there are other problems, too.
“Too many cooks in the kitchen ruin the souffle,” said Macon Councilman Erick Erickson. There are plenty of politicians involved: five county commissioners, a Macon mayor, 15 Macon council members plus leaders from Payne City. Erickson said the number of leaders is both a reason to consolidate and one of the reasons consolidation would be so difficult.
Working through doubts and fears
Last week, county commissioners worried that they’d be overcharged or poorly served by a merged animal control office. But Macon’s City Council could have similar fears over larger departments that the county could take over, such as engineering, which includes public works operations.
If animal control is successfully merged, the process could be used as a template for further mergers. County Commission Chairman Sam Hart said he thought engineering and purchasing could be merged by July 1. Such department-by-department consolidation could build support for a total government consolidation, Hart said.
“I think if (residents) see us actually working toward combining some services, they’ll see this works, this makes sense, and they’ll buy into what we’re trying to do,” Hart said.
But Hart also is tasked with trying to fix some services already shared, such as the 911 system and the Emergency Management Agency, both of which the city runs. County commissioners have routinely questioned EMA’s operations.
Hart said those areas need to be looked at by the city and county governments. Concerns can be addressed and quality improved if everyone works together, he said.
In that, Hart is echoed by Macon Councilwoman Elaine Lucas, who drafted a 10-year plan to merge the departments. Lucas said honesty — even the brutal kind — will be the only way to see consolidation through.
“There have to be some good negotiations, give and take, or the whole thing’s going to fall apart,” she said. “It’s got to be negotiated in earnest. Everyone’s got to be sincere.”
But Erickson, who continues supporting the Lucas plan, thinks it may be destined for failure. Voters need to be consulted on consolidation before all the work has already been done. He wants a vote early on in the process to merge the governments — or he wants to start more governments to increase competition.
“Either we need to consolidate in Bibb County or we need to encourage Lizella, the Rutland area and north Macon to become municipalities,” he said.
Would a direct approach work this time?
County Commissioner Joe Allen thinks consolidation could come by returning to another failed consolidation effort, from 1999. A straight vote on consolidation could pass and be the most direct, and best way, to improve government productivity, he said.
“Take out that ’99 charter, give it out to every Bibb County voter, let them look at it. And then if they wanted to vote, let them see how it works,” Allen said.
Elmo Richardson, a county commissioner and an engineer, campaigned seven years ago on merging the engineering departments. That still hasn’t happened, he notes, and the merging of some departments will cause more problems. Separate governments or merged governments may work better.
“The only way we’ll not have issues with whether the city runs something or the county runs something is total consolidation with the city and county,” Richardson said. “Personally, I think it ought to be done all in one step. I think dragging it out for 10 years, in my opinion, is not the way to go.”
A Florida State University dissertation by Linda S. Johnson found consolidation attempts by Macon and Bibb County in 1929, 1933, 1946, 1960, 1972 and 1976, plus study committees in 1983 and 1999. By comparison, Athens and Clarke County tried to merge in 1969, 1972 and 1982, and succeeded only in 1990.
Richardson, a lifelong resident of Bibb County, doesn’t know whether consolidation will happen in his lifetime. “A lot of things have been talked about, and nothing gets done,” he notes.
But he also offered something that most consolidation supporters would agree with.
“Government by 21 people is ridiculous for a county the size of Bibb County and a city the size of Macon,” he said. “It could easily be governed by five to seven people, not 21, and probably get a lot more accomplished.”
Information from The Telegraph archives was included in this report. To contact writer Mike Stucka, call 744-4251.