ATLANTA — State Rep. Allen Peake filed formal legislation Wednesday calling for a November referendum to consolidate Macon and Bibb County’s government.
The bill has the signatures it needs from local legislators to pass the Georgia House of Representatives. But support in the Senate, which the bill also needs if it’s to culminate in a referendum this year, is far less certain.
Not much, if anything, has changed since state Sen. Cecil Staton, R-Macon, expressed significant reservations about moving forward on consolidation just a few weeks ago. And state Sen. Robert Brown, D-Macon, has had his own concerns.
Brown said Wednesday that he’ll have to scrutinize Peake’s bill before deciding whether to support it. Staton said much the same.
“There are two prerequisites for my support,” Staton said in an e-mail. “First, consolidation must provide value for taxpayers and lower the cost of government. And, second, the voters in my district must not be disenfranchised.”
Peake’s bill may fail on the first prerequisite: The new government would be authorized to spend, in its first year, slightly more than the two governments had been spending combined.
The delegation plans to huddle in Macon to discuss the proposal and go over potential costs with finance officials from the city and the county.
Peake, R-Macon, called the bill “a starting point” Wednesday. He and other local legislators said they’re hoping to hear more feedback from the public as the bill is discussed.
The bill lays out the basics of a new consolidated Macon-Bibb government, which would replace the existing city government and County Commission if local voters approve the plan in a November vote.
The new government charter would have to win a majority vote countywide, as well as within the city of Macon, to take effect.
If that happens, elections for the new government would be held in November 2012, with those officers taking power Jan. 1, 2013.
Peake’s bill, in 59 pages, lays out the following basics:
— A mayor elected countywide and serving a maximum of three four-year terms. The mayor would appoint a chief operating officer, police chief, fire chief and city attorney, though the board of commissioners would have to approve those appointments.
The mayor would be able to fire those employees on his own. He would also set the board’s agenda, with input from board members, and make board committee appointments.
— A board of commissioners with seven members elected from seven districts. They would be part-time positions, limited to three consecutive four-year terms.
The board would elect a chairman from among its members, and that chairman would serve as mayor in the mayor’s absence, much in the way the Macon City Council president does now. The board would have investigatory and subpoena powers over any department of the new government.
— The mayor would not have a vote on the board. He could veto board decisions, which the board could overturn with a two-thirds majority vote.
— The chief operating officer would hire and could fire all department heads, except those appointed by the mayor and the board.
— There would be separate tax districts for the current city of Macon and the unincorporated area. Essentially, former city residents would pay higher taxes, as they do now, for some period of time, though Peake said he anticipates that higher rate ending eventually.
The bill actually allows for several multiple tax districts, where higher taxes can be charged if more government services are available in the area. But public hearings are required to establish those districts.
— The sheriff would be responsible for the jail and serving official documents. But a police chief, appointed by the mayor but needing approval from a majority of the board, would run the police department. This issue — whether the chief law enforcement officer should be elected or appointed — has been a major sticking point in past consolidation efforts.
— Existing jobs could be eliminated to save money, but the new government’s initial spending would be in line with current costs for the two existing governments. In fact, its first year budget would be capped by combining the total city and county budgets, plus inflation, the bill states. Current employees’ pension rights would be retained in full.
— The new entity would be both a city and a county and encompass all of Bibb County, with the exception of tiny Payne City. Payne City would remain an independent municipality, contracting with the new consolidated government for services it now gets from Bibb County, such as police patrols.
— The new government would have two years from its start date to rewrite the local code of ordinances for Macon-Bibb. That would include new regulations on government contracts.
— The small part of incorporated Macon that lies in Jones County would not be part of the new government, meaning it would essentially be de-annexed. There have been questions in the past about whether this is legal, but Peake said he has assurances that it can be done from the General Assembly’s legislative counsel’s office.
The new government charter is based on a charter developed in the late 1990s as part of a consolidation effort then. The only major difference is that the board would have seven members instead of the nine envisioned then, Peake said.
New voting districts would have to be drawn, and Peake said he’s already got some maps put together, but the rest of the local delegation would have to be heavily involved in drawing the voting lines. The U.S. Department of Justice would also have to sign off on the lines before they could be put into place.
Though it’s not clear yet what support Peake’s bill will have with Macon and Bibb County’s two senators, it was signed by all but one of the area’s legislators in the House of Representatives. That should be enough support to get the bill through the House and into the Senate.
Longtime state Rep. David Lucas, D-Macon, was the holdout in the House, but he said Wednesday that it’s not because he’s against consolidation.
Lucas has supported consolidation efforts in the past, and he essentially thinks this one is moving too fast and without a groundswell of support among Macon and Bibb County residents. Lucas said he’d rather give Macon Mayor Robert Reichert and Bibb County Commission Chairman Sam Hart more time to merge city and county services, one department at a time, and prove that a consolidated system can work.
Lucas said it doesn’t have to take 10 years to fully merge, as his wife, City Councilwoman Elaine Lucas, has suggested in legislation that’s passed both the City Council and the County Commission. But it will take longer than the eight months between now and a November vote, he said.
“You’ve got to sell voters on this thing,” Lucas said.
To contact writer Travis Fain, call 361-2702.