Politics & Government

Crawford, Roberta merger proposal finalized

ATLANTA -- A prenuptial agreement of sorts between the city of Roberta and Crawford County has been finalized, bringing the idea of a Roberta-Crawford union one step closer to voters.

The proposal would get rid of the current County Commission, mayor and City Council and reorganize Crawford and Roberta under one new five-member county commission chosen in partisan elections. The district lines would be the same as today's county commission district lines. Roberta-Crawford County would be the government for the whole area, including the footprint of what is now Roberta.

People who live in the current city limits might still get more public services than the rest of the county. That's because the new county commission would be able to outline special districts that could be charged for extras such as sewers. Macon-Bibb County, which approved consolidation in 2012, operates under a similar rule, although efforts are underway to put all Macon-Bibb residents on a level field.

"It's just an option, up to the new government," said state Rep. Robert Dickey, R-Musella, who has led the move for consolidation. This week he filed House Bill 1110, the would-be contract between Roberta and Crawford. It needs formal approval by the state Legislature before it can appear on Nov. 8 ballots this year.

Some of Georgia's more-populous places including Columbus and Augusta already have consolidated governments with their counties. But so have several rural communities like Georgetown-Quitman County.

For the Roberta-Crawford consolidation to happen, Roberta voters would need to approve it, as would voters in Crawford as a whole.

A professional county manager would run day-to-day operations of the combined government, while policy would be set by the commission.

Dickey thinks consolidation would not cost any government jobs in the county or city, though the bill stops short of guaranteeing that. It says that when feasible, the Legislature intends that people should be able to keep their jobs with at least the same salary and benefit level.

The Roberta Police Department would disappear, and the Crawford County sheriff would take over law enforcement countywide. Under state law, the sheriff's office cannot be disbanded or made to fold in Roberta police officers. However, Crawford County Sheriff Lewis Walker has said he is open to interviewing all Roberta officers and said the area will still need the same amount of policing manpower.

Dickey said he thinks unification would drive down property taxes in the city and county. He thinks there are savings in bringing together work such as policing that is now split between separate agencies. A consolidated government also can raise money by taxing some utilities in ways counties cannot. That may be a wash for residents, however, if those utilities pass along the fees to residents.

The plan has its skeptics, however, including Roberta Mayor Becky Smith, she has said.

Roberta City Councilman Ervin Patton said he doesn't see where the savings Dickey promises would come from.

"None of the needs are going away," Patton said. "They'll all remain."

The bill is set to move through the Legislature quickly, as Crawford's other lawmaker, state Sen. John F. Kennedy, R-Macon, said he anticipates supporting it.

If voters approve consolidation this November, they would next go to the polls in March 2017 to elect their first consolidated commission. Then Roberta and Crawford would each dissolve and be reformed as Roberta-Crawford County on Jan. 1, 2018.

After that, commission elections would move onto a staggered schedule of four-year terms. So, going forward after consolidation, a portion of commission seats would be up for election each November in even-numbered years.

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