Officials weigh in on Macon-Bibb consolidation

When local officials talk about consolidating Macon and Bibb County governments, the phrase “the devil is in the details” pops up more than any other.

By that measurement, the latest consolidation bill’s details have many demons, even though the idea of consolidation has many champions.

State legislators’ requirements that the new government be cheaper can cost the support of local leaders. Some favor the current bill’s use of a sheriff for all law enforcement, while others want an appointed police chief.

Others worry about how two disparate populations and governments can be merged.

Bibb County Commissioner Lonzy Edwards sees problems both inside and outside the city limits if the bill ever goes to a popular vote, as planned, in November.

“The two big factors would be the skepticism of the people in the unincorporated area and the suspicions of the people about the black voting factor,” he said.

City and unincorporated county residents would have to approve consolidation by a majority vote under House Bill 98, drafted by state Rep. Allen Peake, R-Macon.

Peake said he expects the bill could clear the state House of Representatives in the next two weeks.

His bill would create “urban” and “general” tax districts so neither city nor county taxpayers become responsible for each others’ independently acquired debt.

It also mandates an actual decrease in the consolidated government’s size, by capping its budget below the current total budgets of the city and county, he said.

“What’s non-negotiable in this charter is making sure, putting qualifiers in the charter, that it will provide a smaller, fairer, more efficient government,” he said.

Edwards said he can’t guarantee a consolidated government would be cheaper.

County Commissioner Elmo Richardson said it would be more expensive for a time, as the new government spends money on items as basic as uniforms and repainted police cars.

City Council President Miriam Paris said she doesn’t want city residents to continue paying for county liabilities.

“That’s a deal-breaker right there, for me,” she said. Unless consolidation eliminated that, city residents -- the majority of the total population -- will find the proposal “unattractive,” she said.

Councilwoman Elaine Lucas offered generic support for consolidation but disdains the current proposal. She doesn’t think voters would approve the bill in the city or the county.

“I think it’s forcing a marriage that’s not going to work between the city and county. We need to take a more deliberate approach over a longer period of time,” said Lucas, who urged merging city and county departments, one at a time, over a decade.

Councilman Rick Hutto said he would back any consolidation proposal unless the details are “absolutely offensive to me.” He wants the separate city-county votes that are in the bill now.

But before local voters could consider the bill in November, it has to get through the state Senate.

Sen. Robert Brown, D-Macon, stymied a consolidation bill last year. Local legislation typically requires a majority vote of each chamber of the General Assembly, and, with only Brown and Sen. Cecil Staton, R-Macon, representing Bibb County, both would have to agree on the bill in the usual process.

Peake said the Senate could try passing the consolidation bill as a regular legislation, bypassing Brown and the usual process.

“We’d rather not do that,” Peake said. “We’d rather have a consensus.”

Peake said if Brown doesn’t support the bill, it would strip some support from residents in the November vote.

Councilman Charles Jones said Brown’s opinion probably will sway many voters.

“I think we rely on Sen. Brown. He carries a lot of weight,” Jones said. “I’d certainly like to see him have his say in it.”

Paris said she doesn’t think Brown, or any other one person, will determine how most people will vote.

“I think those days are gone,” she said.

Richardson said he supports consolidation in general, but he opposes most of the details of the bill.

Richardson wants a County Commission of perhaps five or seven members, including a voting mayor. Peake’s bill calls for a nine-member commission board, plus a separate mayor.

Richardson would rather have an appointed police chief for most law enforcement duties, and he wants to see how financial liabilities will be accounted for, including the city’s unfunded retiree health care needs.

“What is done right? Consolidated government,” he said.

Commissioner Joe Allen said he can live with the current bill and thinks it would be approved by voters, but he’d also rather see a smaller board of commissioners, perhaps with seven members.

“I think people are tired of seeing 25 people run Macon and Bibb County, because Macon and Bibb County are too small to have 25 elected officials,” he said.

But local officials want consolidation to pass and think it may be inevitable. Richardson worries about the governments being forced into a “shotgun wedding.”

Councilman Lonnie Miley said he’ll favor the proposal so long as the public gets to vote, as the current version provides.

Consolidation has been voted down before, but some minds may have changed in the intervening years, and other minds may be willing to change if the details are presented clearly, he said.

“I do think it is something that is going to happen eventually anyway,” Miley said.

To contact writer Jim Gaines, call 744-4489. To contact writer Mike Stucka, call 744-4251.