House set to take up Macon-Bibb consolidation

ATLANTA -- A plan to put the question of Macon-Bibb government consolidation to the voters is expected to sail through the state House Thursday or Monday.

“What this will do is start initiating some serious debate,” said Rep. Allen Peake, R-Macon, the bill’s author, who added, “Let’s let the people decide.”

He said he’s trying to squeeze it onto the House floor Thursday, but if time is too short, it will pass Monday.

The bill will not come up for debate. As a bill that would affect just one locale, the House should pass it as a courtesy, in deference to an agreement made within a city or county delegation.

That agreement came just hours after Rep. Robert Dickey, R-Musella, winner of a Feb. 15 special election, was sworn into office. He became the fourth person to sign on, Peake said, giving it a majority within the Macon-Bibb group.

Besides Peake and Dickey, whose district reaches into Bibb County, the delegation includes Republicans Rep. Bubber Epps, who represents much of unincorporated Bibb, and Rep. Susan Holmes, who has a sliver of the city of Macon in her Monticello-based district. The Democrats are Reps. David Lucas and Nikki Randall, both of Macon.

The bill does not need their approval to go to the Senate.

Senate approval is far from assured. Last year, when they received a similar bill, Senate Minority Leader Robert Brown of Macon and Sen. Cecil Staton, who represents much of unincorporated Bibb, never agreed on a draft.

But if it’s successful, Macon and Bibb voters could see the question on the November ballot.

Peake’s draft this year would create a nine-member Macon-Bibb Board of Commissioners, limited to three four-year terms. A mayor would be elected at large, would hire a chief operating officer and present the budget, among other powers. The mayor would not vote in the commission. An elected sheriff would oversee law enforcement.

Twenty years ago, Clarke County and the city of Athens decided to consolidate.

A special committee reviews the effects of consolidation every 10 years. Jill Read led the last committee, which filed a report just last month.

“One of the pros is that it takes the politics out of the day-to-day operations of government,” Read said.

In Athens-Clarke County, only the city manager can fire people, for example. The Macon draft would give the commission and the mayor firing power over a handful of top officers.

“The hardest part is fusing different departments that duplicate each other,” especially police and fire, she added.

But she said the most important thing is to get professional management: “And all that depends on your elected officials, what their priorities are.”

In her consolidated county, elected officials focus mainly on policy and big picture issues. And the constituent requests -- a stop sign in a neighborhood, for example -- go to the Public Works Department, not a buddy who sits on the commission. Read conceded that it ends up as something of a power loss for elected officials.

Read emphasized that every community is different, but in Athens-Clarke, consolidated government is a bit cheaper than the alternative. By House Bill 98 as written, Macon-Bibb would start at a budget equal to their separate budgets, but would need to knock 5 percent off their budget by 2017.

In both Athens and Clarke, the property tax rate is the same on both sides of the city line, though people in the urban district pay extra for city water and the like. Peake’s bill also creates districts and directs any new commission to consider the higher level of services in the city when setting property tax rates. That could translate to a bigger property tax rate in Macon than in unconsolidated Bibb.

Each side would also pay its portion of the debts it brings into the marriage.

The Athens-Clarke consolidation required no layoffs -- but a lot of retraining employees. Athens-Clarke employs about the same number of people as 20 years ago. Read emphasized: “We have good staff.”

To contact writer Maggie Lee, e-mail