State Rep. Allen Peake is ramping up the pressure on city-county consolidation, pushing a much faster timetable than the 10-year plan local officials have in place.
Peake, R-Macon, may even call for a referendum on a full-blown merger of the Macon and Bibb County governments in November. But since there are a lot of steps before that can happen — for example, deciding what a consolidated Macon-Bibb government would look like — Peake said he’ll also work along two other paths.
Peake said he’ll push, during the legislative session that starts Monday, for a new commission to draft a charter for the prospective government. That’s a process the community has gone through a few times in the past couple of decades. He’ll also ask for a nonbinding referendum in November to take the pulse of the community, asking on local ballots whether people support the concept of consolidation.
“I’m going to pursue each avenue and see how far we get on any of them,” he said.
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Out, for now, is Peake’s suggestion that north Bibb residents form their own new city. That idea has won support in the area, but he said consolidation is the better way to go.
This ramp-up is born of frustration: Consolidation seems to be popular with local elected officials, but seldom seems to go anywhere. Still, the prospects are as good now as they’ve been in many years, and some movement is apparent.
The Bibb County Commission and the Macon City Council have both approved a 10-year plan to merge individual departments, then call for a referendum to finish a full government merger. Commission Chairman Sam Hart and Macon Mayor Robert Reichert meet often and are negotiating a merger of the city and county engineering departments. They’ve nearly finalized a deal to merge animal control operations.
“Anything that helps facilitate the process, I’m in favor,” Hart said of Peake’s plans. Reichert said he’s “very excited about hearing more” from Peake.
But there are concerns that Peake is moving too quickly, and is in danger of upsetting a delicate balance that exists now.
Councilwoman Elaine Lucas, a longtime local politician whose husband serves with Peake in the Georgia General Assembly, said Tuesday she’ll work against anything but the 10-year plan for consolidation. She said any effort to speed up the timetable would “go down in flames” because voters need to see proof that the two governments can merge services efficiently.
State Sen. Robert Brown, who was at the forefront of a consolidation movement in the 1990s, only to see it disintegrate, said he’s not sure what to think of Peake’s recent moves. He cautioned against swimming too fast in the current of local politics.
“There’s somewhat of a consensus (for consolidation) at the local level that, quite frankly, is unprecedented,” said Brown, D-Macon. “And if you agitate that too much ... you run the risk of having a battle royal that doesn’t benefit anyone.”
State Rep. David Lucas, D-Macon, said he simply doesn’t have time for this debate again. “As far as I’m concerned, it’s going to fall by the wayside just like it’s always done. ...” Lucas said. “I got too many other things to worry about. We need some jobs in Macon.”
To be sure, consolidation has failed at the ballot box four times since 1935, with the most recent vote in 1976. Numerous other efforts, most recently in 2004, died off before making it to a vote.
The biggest roadblocks have typically been disagreement over whether an elected sheriff or an appointed police chief should handle patrols in the Macon-Bibb area, as well as whether all residents should pay the same tax rate. Past plans have included higher tax rates for former Macon residents, who have traditionally had a higher level of service inside the city limits.
There are also questions of race and power. How will a merger affect black, or white, voting power? How will it shift power along party lines?
Hart said his election, as Bibb County’s first black commission chairman, may have answered some of those questions. But another problem remains: Some unincorporated residents feel a merger would force them to “bail out” the city, which has more financial problems and a largely stagnant tax base.
Reichert tried to get unincorporated residents to annex into Macon last year to ease the city’s financial burden. He preached unity, saying everyone in Bibb County needs Macon to prosper, and everyone needs skin in that game. But his proposal was soundly rejected by the people he wanted to annex, who would have had to pay higher taxes.
Consolidation only benefits city residents if, like annexation, it brings in new money, Brown said. But if taxes are raised in the unincorporated area, how does that benefit those residents, he asked.
The Macon Water Authority already provides water and sewer countywide. Unincorporated residents pay an extra 3 mills in property taxes to fund a countywide fire department. The county offers garbage collection with more recycling than the city, and the sheriff’s office handles patrols.
“I just don’t see people in the unincorporated area ... wanting to basically bail the city out,” Brown said. “And how else do you characterize it?”
Peake acknowledged that all these difficult issues must be addressed. He said consolidation is the right path to take, but it will take a grassroots effort to get it done.
“I believe a citizen-led organization will have to lead the way,” he said. “This cannot be forced by me or any other elected official.”