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Staton: Consolidated government must be cheaper than Bibb, Macon

ATLANTA — The push to hold a November referendum on consolidating the Macon and Bibb County governments picked up a little more momentum Thursday with state Sen. Cecil Staton’s announcement that he’s actively working on the consolidation plan.

Staton, R-Macon, remains concerned about consolidation, and particularly about whether it will actually make government cheaper. But he said Thursday that he’s tweaking state Rep. Allen Peake’s consolidation plan and adding, among other things, a guarantee that it will be.

Whether that will take the form of a millage-rate cap to hold property taxes in check or some other method remains to be seen, Staton said. Legislative attorneys at the Capitol are working on the language, and “I don’t know what that is going to be yet,” he said.

Peake’s original bill, which passed the Georgia House of Representatives earlier this week, included a guarantee that the new government wouldn’t spend more than the cost of the two previous ones, plus inflation.

Staton has said that’s not enough, that the merger has to be cheaper.

“I see this as part of the process,” Staton said of his effort to rework the plan. “I’m not going to be an obstructionist (on consolidation). I’m going to work on the bill to get it so I support it.”

Staton said he’s also changing the proposed charter for the new government to put an elected sheriff in charge of law enforcement across the county. Peake’s version had the sheriff running the jail, but with law enforcement handled by an appointed chief.

This has been a sticking point in past, and repeated, failed efforts to consolidate. A recent poll showed that most Bibb residents prefer having an elected sheriff in charge of law enforcement, but Peake said Thursday that he prefers an appointed police chief.

“It’s proved to work out better to have an appointed law enforcement chief” in other consolidated communities, Peake said.

Still, Peake said he’s willing to talk about this. It’s not clear what other support the change might erode — or even strengthen — among other House members who must sign off on this bill if there’s to be a November consolidation referendum.

It also remains to be seen where state Sen. Robert Brown, D-Macon, will go on consolidation. He’s repeatedly expressed reservations about the plan, and he said Thursday that “there’s a lot to be thought about on the consolidation issue.”

Staton’s version would also have a nine-member commission instead of the seven that Peake had written into the plan. The change is in line with the charter as it was proposed in the late 1990s, and several Bibb County legislators have said they prefer the larger commission. Brown has preferred a larger number, though he said Thursday that he’s “not wed to anything.”

Staton said he also plans to make commission elections nonpartisan, which more than 50 percent of respondents said they’d prefer in the consolidation poll released earlier this week.

If all this gets worked out, there will be other big issues to discuss before a new government can be established. For starters, someone would have to draw new voting districts, which is sure to be contentious. Then there’s the referendum itself. The vote would be countywide, but it would have to pass in the county as a whole as well as in the city of Macon.

That gives city residents more power in the matter. Polling seems to show that consolidation is least popular in the unincorporated area, but those residents’ votes would essentially be diluted by the process.

Peake said Thursday that “the momentum is moving” toward a November vote.

“Now is the time,” he said. “That is my mantra. All I want is for the people to vote.”

To contact writer Travis Fain, call 361-2702

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