Moving forward on consolidating Macon and Bibb County governments this year faces long odds, a key legislator signaled Friday.
Sen. Cecil Staton, R-Macon, said a November vote on consolidation would require both his support and that of Sen. Robert Brown, D-Macon. Staton said he needs to see key facts — like how much money consolidation would save — that accountants probably couldn’t develop before the end of this year’s already half-done legislative session.
“I think the challenges are enormous and the bar is high,” said Staton, who said voters would want the same information as well.
Though Brown was quiet during a Friday morning talk between local legislators and leaders of Macon and Bibb County, he had his own concerns. Last month, he said he wanted consensus among legislators before moving forward.
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But the sponsor of the consolidation bill, Rep. Allen Peake, R-Macon, came away from Friday’s discussions excited by the talk.
“I’m more encouraged than ever,” he said. Officials talking Friday either supported consolidation or were open to the idea.
City and county officials also cautioned that in the short term, consolidating governments would cost more money — even for basic items such as repainting police patrol cars or buying officers’ uniforms.Macon Mayor Robert Reichert said it was better to explore the “great unknown” of consolidation than face a decaying city government.
“We can survive, but if you’re looking for this community to thrive, something’s got to change,” he said.Macon Finance Director Tom Barber said the city government may be falling behind by about $15 million a year on spending to keep buildings maintained, fire trucks running, workers on the job and pensions properly funded.
Staton said consolidation needs to bring value to taxpayers, with a more efficient government that costs less.“If consolidation means 1 plus 1 equals 2.05 or 2.1 or 2.2, count me out,” he said.
“If consolidation means 1 plus 1 equals 1.8 or 1.85,” he would favor the move.
Barber said perhaps the legislation could set firm limits on the consolidated government’s budget for a number of years.
The biggest divide: when to try consolidation.
Reichert wants to keep momentum going for a vote this year, which also would fit with city and county election schedules.
But city and county officials separately voted their support for Macon Councilwoman Elaine Lucas’ plan to merge all city and county departments over 10 years. Lucas said that would show voters that consolidation works.
“Right now the voters are opposed to it. It would not pass in the city or the county,” she said.
County Commissioner Sam Hart said he wants to wait until he can show how the first mergers work. Animal control operations are scheduled to merge March 1, and other departments — including engineering, recreation and purchasing — could merge soon after. Hart thinks a vote should take place in November 2011, a year later than in Peake’s plan.
Peake said he planned to continue pushing the bill to overcome hurdles.
“That’s the art of politics, is negotiation,” he said. “And we’ll be negotiating until the end of the session.”
If his consolidation bill fails this year, it could also be reborn next year, he said.
“I learned a long time ago every deal can die a few deaths.”
To contact reporter Mike Stucka, call 744-4251.