After decades of debate, Macon and Bibb County voters approved the consolidation of the two governments Tuesday.
In unofficial results, consolidation was approved by strong majorities in both Macon and in unincorporated Bibb County.
“I think tonight marks the time that Macon and Bibb County have embraced the future and set out to be a more unified community,” Macon Mayor Robert Reichert said late Tuesday.
Consolidation had to pass both in Macon and in all of Bibb County for approval. City voters favored it 9,624 to 7,028. Across Bibb County, the vote was 18,493 to 14,131. The Macon vote passed with 57.8 percent, while the county overall passed at 56.7 percent. Unincorporated Bibb County approved it at a rate of 55.5 percent.
Reichert will have to help guide a transition to a consolidated government -- but he said something else has priority.
“This has been a tough election, and this has been a very divisive election. And it has divided households, it has divided families, it has divided friends,” he said. “So the first thing we’re going to have to do is heal the community and recognize we’re all still together.”
Bibb County Commissioner Lonzy Edwards said he hopes his predictions about consolidation’s troubles -- including a demand for a 20 percent cut in the cost of government -- get proven wrong.
“You have to respect the voice of the people. That doesn’t change the fact you’re going to have to make those cuts,” Edwards said.
Another consolidation opponent, Macon Councilman Tom Ellington, wrote in an e-mail that his concerns remain.
“However, the voters have spoken, and I hope that the new government works well,” Ellington wrote.
State Rep. Allen Peake, who had been pushing consolidation for years, said Tuesday’s vote shows that Bibb County came together.
“This is a game-changer day for our community,” he said.
Peake said Bibb County’s legislative delegation will have to meet soon to set up a transition team. The delegation has to appoint five of the 15 members, but Peake noted that members may have lost re-election bids or face runoffs.
Bibb County Commissioner Elmo Richardson said a message that Bibb County has gotten its act together will spread across the entire Southeast.
As the outgoing county Finance Committee chairman, Richardson will also serve on the transition committee.
“There’s a tremendous amount of work to be done, a tremendous amount of details to be worked out,” Richardson said.
Under the legislation that led to Tuesday’s referendum, consolidation will dissolve the governments of Macon, Bibb County and Payne City, then replace them with a single government led by a mayor and nine county commissioners.
Gary Bechtel, the Republican who won the Bibb County Commission District 3 seat Tuesday night, said he’s “very excited” that voters approved consolidation.
“I’ll serve a year and then run again” for the new government, he said. “Hopefully, I’ll have the opportunity to serve on the new commission.”
Some Bibb County residents focused their vote based on perceived financial effects of consolidation.
Josie Knight, an 86-year-old who voted at Mabel White Memorial Baptist Church, said she opposed consolidation.
“I think taxes would go up on people in the county,” she said. “It’s high enough as it is.”
Another Mabel White voter, 67-year-old Robert Henderson, said he voted for consolidation because he hopes government spending would decrease with merged city and county governments.
“The more budgets you’ve got, the more fat you’ve got,” he said.
James Spencer, 56, cast his vote for consolidation at Brookdale Elementary.
“I do think it will help in the long run as far as the consolidated government saving money. I think it’d be a more efficient government, hopefully,” Spencer said.
If consolidation passes, the transition task force would begin working Sept. 1 to launch a consolidated government effective January 2014. The 15-member board will be led by state Rep. Nikki Randall, chairwoman of Bibb County’s legislative delegation, while including members such as the Bibb County Commission chairman, Macon’s mayor and City Council president, Macon’s police chief and the Bibb County sheriff.
Supporters of the consolidation referendum said it would make for a more efficient government that could save taxpayers money and have the government speak with a single voice.
Opponents said the consolidation proposal was riddled with unworkable flaws, such as a mandated 20-percent cut in government costs and a budget process that requires approval from six of nine commissioners.
But the consolidation fight also had racial connotations. Among elected officials, most whites supported consolidation and most blacks opposed it. A Telegraph analysis showed a majority of voting-age residents in five of the nine districts would be at least 61 percent black.
Telegraph writers Beau Cabell, Andrea Castillo, Jim Gaines, Phillip Ramati and Woody Marshall contributed to this report. To contact writer Mike Stucka, call 744-4251.