Politics & Government

Proposal shaping up for Roberta, Crawford unification

ATLANTA -- Residents of Crawford County and Roberta probably will be asked to vote on merging the county and city this November, said the Musella state representative who is pushing for the vote.

The proposed unification agreement still needs a few days' work and input from a public meeting set for Saturday, said state Rep. Robert Dickey, R-Musella. But next week, he plans to finalize the charter proposal and file it for the state Legislature's formal consideration. If approved, Crawford and Roberta voters would have their say on a referendum this fall.

Although details have not been finalized, the broad outline is ready.

The current Crawford County Commission as well as the Roberta mayor and City Council offices would disappear and be replaced by a five-member County Commission chosen in partisan elections.

The date of those elections and the day a new government would take office have not yet been nailed down, Dickey said. Tentatively, those elections would happen in 2017, and the new government would begin Jan. 1, 2018.

Dickey said the merger would lower property taxes. Right now Crawford's millage rate is 28.53 mills, and Roberta's is 36.27 mills, including the millage for education.

Dickey thinks that by July 2022 the merger would drive the millage rate down to about 27 mills countywide. A promise to cut rates may be written into the charter.

"We're going to lower property taxes in county and city. It's going to be a win-win proposition in my mind," he said.

Two things would drive down property taxes, he said. First, public money would be saved through efficiencies from merging services like law enforcement that are now split between city and county agencies.

Also, he said, there would be new revenue from "franchise fees," money that consolidated governments can collect from some utilities that counties cannot collect.

But there's a trade-off: If residents get a new, lower property tax bill, they also may get higher utility bills as companies pass along franchise fees.

Dickey said he intends that the merger will not cost the jobs of any city or county employees, although he does not know yet if any guarantee will appear in the legal merger document.

"I think there's going to be plenty of work" for city and county staff, he said.

The Roberta Police Department would be disbanded, and the county sheriff would take over all law enforcement in the area. The sheriff is not obligated to fold those city officers into the county force.

However, Crawford County Sheriff Lewis Walker said that if there is a merger and he is still sheriff, he will be open to interviewing all Roberta officers who apply.

The next public meeting on the proposal is Saturday from 9 a.m. until 10:30 a.m. at the Roberta Civic Center.

For the merger to take place, Crawford County voters, which includes those in the city of Roberta, must approve the referendum. Roberta voters also must OK the consolidated government.

But Roberta Mayor Becky Smith said she opposes the idea.

"You can't do a charter in three months and do it right," she said.

Smith said she has heard from some city residents who think a merger might be a good idea, but she said a much greater number are against it.

She has questions about law enforcement and water service for those currently living in the city if there's a merger. Smith also said she's not convinced a consolidated government would save money and drive down taxes as supporters promise.

Similar midstate merger proposals have a mixed record with voters. In 2012, Macon and Bibb voters voted to approve a merger after decades of rejecting it. Last year, Baldwin County and Milledgeville voters overwhelmingly turned down a consolidation proposal.

Pat Kelly, Crawford County's manager, said he has heard a lot of questions about consolidation and predicts that Saturday's meeting will help "get rid of the smoke."

"I think we're just at the very beginning of getting the information out to folks," he said.

Dickey's next step is getting formal approval from the state Legislature in Atlanta to set up the referendum. He plans to file a bill next week to do that. Crawford County's other state lawmaker, state Sen. John F. Kennedy, R-Macon, said he anticipates supporting the bill when it reaches the Senate. His signature would line it up for quick approval in Atlanta.

To contact writer Maggie Lee, e-mail mlee@macon.com.