ATLANTA -- A plan to unify Baldwin County and the city of Milledgeville has passed its final vote in the state Legislature and gets a step closer to city and county ballot boxes.
In a 45-6 vote, the state Senate added its approval to House Bill 67 on Wednesday. It passed without discussion as part of a bundle of bills that only affects a single county or city.
In the hall outside Senate chambers, state Rep. Rusty Kidd, I-Milledgeville, who sponsored the bill, watched the vote on a screen.
“The main thing is economic development,” said Kidd. A merger, he said, would mean Baldwin County and Milledgeville speak with a new, unified voice to attract investment.
He also predicted that over time, a consolidated government would prove cheaper than two separate governments, as attrition leads to a lower employee count.
State Sen Burt Jones, R-Jackson, is the other state lawmaker whose district includes Baldwin County.
“The feeling I get from the general public is people want the opportunity to vote on it,” Jones said.
The bill sets up a 2015 election and directs the Baldwin County Board of Elections to set the voting date for either July 21, if a separate pending bill allows it, or the Nov. 3 general election if it doesn’t. Depending on that decision, if voters from both the city and county approve, a consolidation would happen in either July 2016 or January 2017.
Voter approval would make Baldwin County-Milledgeville Georgia’s ninth consolidated government.
The charter would set up five county commission districts, plus a mayor and vice mayor elected at-large. The mayor would nominate a county manager subject to commission approval.
The proposal has faced opposition that’s ongoing.
County Commissioner Tommy French said “there is no cash analysis of what this will cost,” and he’s not sure there will be savings.
The bill caps Milledgeville-Baldwin County’s first budget at the sum of their spending in their final year of independent existence. And until the government is at least three years old, it must keep any budget increases below 10 percent.
By contrast, Macon-Bibb County’s consolidation bill mandated budget cuts over the first five years.
It’s hard to say if consolidated governments reliably save money, said Ted Baggett, the local government program manager at the Carl Vinson Institute of Government at the University of Georgia. His office wrote consolidation case studies for Macon-Bibb County before its 2012 merger vote.
“You’re comparing the consolidated government (spending) to an unknown,” Baggett said.
French said he thinks that Baldwin County’s two state lawmakers are overruling local government.
While the Baldwin County Commission voted to support the bill this year, the Milledgeville City Council voted against it.
Jones said it is “sticky” to decide on local legislation when it doesn’t have full local support. But he also said the issue has been “hotly contested” at least for the three years he’s been in the Legislature. He said it’s time for a vote.
Commissioner Henry Craig said he supports the bill and plans to vote yes at the polls.
“In my opinion, there are opportunities to serve the people better with one unified government ... and over time there is potential for savings, significant savings over time,” Craig said.
The bill guarantees that all city and county staff would keep their jobs and same pay. After a year, the merged government will need to have started to equalize pay among comparable employees.
For example, the Milledgeville Police Department would merge into the Baldwin County Sheriff’s Office. Staff from both sides would then be merged onto the same pay scale.
For the unified government’s first two years, employee numbers cannot grow from Milledgeville and Baldwin County’s totals on the day of ratification.
A merger would fix the messiness of Milledgeville’s city limits, Craig said. Some parts of town are tied by a single road, and there are islands of unincorporated county inside the city.
“Right this minute we have fire trucks passing each other on the road. That makes no sense,” Craig said.
Unification would erase those borders.
The Baldwin County-Milledgeville courtship is going through about the same phases as previous counties and cities, Baggett said.
“There’s the ‘should we do this?’ question,” he said. “Then if so, what’s the structure?”
The Milledgeville-Baldwin County bill is similar to others in that it makes big-picture proposals, then leaves fine details, such as code, budget and personnel, to newly elected officials.
“It often takes multiple attempts” to get voter approval on a merger, Baggett said. Macon-Bibb County took four tries over about 100 years.
The bill now moves to Gov. Nathan Deal’s desk. Local bills usually win the governor’s signature if they are supported by all of a county’s lawmakers.