Editor’s note: Glynn County and Brunswick last voted in a governmental consolidation referendum 30 years ago. On the 30th anniversary, The News is taking a closer look at the process and how it has worked elsewhere in a three-part series that began Thursday and ends with this edition.
It’s been 30 years since the last time Glynn County residents went to the polls to consider government consolidation.
The issue is resurrected from time to time, mostly by county officials who believe everyone would benefit if Brunswick and the county operated under one umbrella.
In 1990, a straw poll was held, showing a majority of residents favored consolidation. Despite the support, city and county officials in 1992 agreed there was nothing to talk about regarding consolidation.
“Let’s take that issue and bury it … let’s have a funeral for it. I’m not talking about services, just government,” said E.C. Tillman, chairman of the Glynn County Commission in 1992.
In 2002, a committee was formed to explore merging city police and fire services with the county. That initiative failed 18 months later.
During Local Option Sales Tax negotiations in 2012, county commissioners suggested it may be time to consolidate. As recently as 2015, county commissioners discussed consolidation but they never got enough support to hold formal discussions with the city.
County commissioners met with state legislators to discuss consolidating with Brunswick two years ago. The state delegation told commissioners legislation would not be introduced to the General Assembly without the support of a majority of city and county commissioners.
While there were some issues to be resolved, those shared services — joint water and sewer, animal control, mosquito control, and parks and recreation — are working well for the most part, city and county officials said.
Bill Brunson, current Glynn County Commission chairman, said he has advocated full consolidation for decades.
“We’ve broached that subject on a number of occasions,” he said. “I just think the county has the resources to help.”
Brunson pointed out the city and county have separate public safety, public works, lawyers and other services that could be consolidated.
“You’d have the synergy,” he said. “It’s got to be a win-win for everybody. To me, it’s a no-brainer.”
Brunswick Mayor Cornell Harvey is not as enthusiastic, saying the city and county need to improve cooperation before consolidation discussions begin.
“The city and county work well together in certain instances, but the city and county are not ready to consolidate,” he said. “Sometimes politicians seem to get in the way of things.”
Instead of merging more services, Harvey said he wants the city to manage its own parks and recreation programs because they gave up too much Local Option Sales Tax revenue when the 10-year agreement was negotiated in 2012.
“I felt the city could handle it better,” he said.
Harvey has few complaints with animal control, but he hasn’t determined if shared water and sewer services are good for the city.
“It may merit taking a look at that again,” he said.
Dave Wills, former county commission chairman in Webster County, said all the local governments had very few problems and operated efficiently a decade ago when consolidation was discussed there.
“We were all in good financial shape,” he said. “The driving factor was whether our citizens would be served better by a consolidated government. It became an exchange of services that benefited both municipalities.”
Voters in Webster County approved the referendum on the first vote by making discussions as apolitical as possible. No elected officials served on the committee tasked with drafting a new charter to merge Webster County and its encompassed cities.
While eight counties have consolidated in Georgia, Glynn County would be a hybrid because of demographics.
The motivation driving many consolidation efforts is often a struggling unincorporated area of a county seeking more and improved municipal services from a large city.
Typically, consolidated governments fall into two categories in Georgia. Half the consolidated counties are home to a large metropolitan city with an unincorporated area demanding more municipal services.
Macon, Augusta, Columbus and Athens offered those services to residents in unincorporated areas. Plus, the agreements gave the consolidated governments the ability to collect franchise fees from electric, gas and telephone companies throughout the consolidated county.
In smaller counties such as Webster, Echols, Quitman and Chattahoochee, the motivation was different. The ability to collect franchise fees was one of the motivating factors that led to the successful votes in those counties.
In Glynn County, consolidation would be different than other counties in the state. A majority of residents live outside Brunswick city limits in communities well served by public services, good roads, internet, cable service, public works and a solid fund reserve.
Brunswick has struggled with a shrinking tax base, blight in some areas, aging infrastructure and crime.
Although parts of the county have some similar issues, the contrasts beg the questions: What motivation does the county have by consolidating with the city? And why is the city reluctant to discuss the issue?
A major motivation for the county is a consolidated government would enable the county to collect franchise fees for electricity, gas and telephone.
Brunswick collects an estimated $1.03 million annually from Georgia Power, $44,000 from Atlanta Gas Light and $75,000 from phone companies, which the county is unable to collect.
The county collects about $244,000 from BellSouth telecommunications and $1.1 million from Comcast.
A consolidated county government would be able to collect franchise fees throughout the county, potentially generating millions in new revenue because the majority of county residents live outside Brunswick city limits.
Wills said the potential benefits outweigh any concerns opponents to consolidation may have.
While there will be rebranding, with plenty of changes needed on signs, letterheads and business cards, any fears about communities losing their identities are unfounded, Wills said.
“Identity isn’t an issue,” he said. “There will still be a Brunswick on the map. Macon/Bibb County is a good example.”
Voting districts could be created to ensure every area of the county and city have representation.
Chris Floore, director of external affairs for Macon, said consolidation has worked well since voters approved it five years ago.
“Lots of positive things happened,” he said.
More businesses have been attracted to the area because it’s easier to obtain permits and licenses. And spending in the new combined government was cut 20 percent in three years.
“You’re only dealing with one governing body,” he said. “It’s less bureaucracy.”
Amy Henderson, a public information officer for the Georgia Municipal Association, said consolidation leads to a leaner government, but there’s no guarantee it will lower taxes.
“It’s more efficient. It’s not necessarily cheaper,” she said.
Harvey was less enthusiastic about the benefits, expressing doubts that county officials share a mutual respect for Brunswick officials.
“The county wants to take over city services,” he said. “We run an efficient government.”
He hasn’t ruled out ever agreeing to discuss consolidation with the county, but he believes the two governments need to help one another more before that could happen.
“The city is standing on its own two feet,” Harvey said. “From where we were, we’ve made a great leap forward. Consolidation is not in the plans.”
State Rep. Jeff Jones, R-St. Simons Island, said a referendum may not be necessary to determine the level of interest on consolidation in Glynn County.
He suggested the Republican and Democratic parties have non-binding resolutions on a ballot for voters to consider.
Jones said he believes Brunswick would benefit from consolidating with the county.
“There are a lot of benefits I see,” he said. “I am a supporter of government structure that best serves citizens at the lowest cost. It streamlines government.”