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 runs through Saturday.
The newest city and county to consolidate in Georgia also has the distinction of being the first in the state to discuss merging local governments more than 80 years ago.
A majority of Macon and Bibb County voters finally agreed to consolidate in 2012, becoming the eighth municipality in the state make the move. The time-consuming effort shows how challenging it can be to generate support to even draft a referendum for voters to consider.
Despite many failed attempts to place consolidation on a ballot, voters were never given a chance to consider a referendum in Bibb County until five years ago, said Chris Floore, the city’s director for external affairs.
It passed on the first attempt.
The arguments in favor of consolidation were the same as in other municipalities in the state: double taxation, duplication of services, unincorporated county residents receiving less services and in-fighting between local governments.
“We finally realized we were all in this together,” Floore said. “With us, it really was just us.”
Opponents expressed concerns about the dilution of local representation because there would be fewer elected officials under a new government. Others predicted consolidation would not achieve the end result of lowering spending, which was a major selling point to voters.
Four steps were required before the referendum vote was held.
A charter describing the structure, authority and responsibilities of the proposed unified government was written.
Legislation from the Georgia General Assembly authorized the proposed consolidation and called for a binding referendum. The charter was given pre-clearance by the U.S. Department of Justice under the Voting Rights Act.
The final step was a binding referendum that had to be approved by a majority of city voters, and a majority of countywide voters, including the city voters.
One of the incentives for voters in Bibb County was a promise to reduce spending by 5 percent each of the first four years of consolidation.
Floore said the new government achieved its goal of cutting spending by 20 percent in three years. Staff was cut from about 2,200 employees to about 1,800 workers through early retirement incentives and attrition.
“The charter said nobody would lose their jobs during the transition,” he said. “We definitely have a much leaner government.”
The new charter specified how the new government would be configured. Conflicting ordinances had to be resolved, new pay scales developed and the location of government offices had to be determined.
There were a lot of up-front costs that had to be spent to complete consolidation.
New uniforms for law enforcement officials had to be purchased. Road signs, business cards, letterheads and other markings were also changed to reflect the new government.
The changes were time consuming. In fact, Floore said the last law enforcement patrol car has been re-striped — nearly four years after the vote — to reflect the new consolidated government.
The number of elected officials was reduced from 21 city and county officials down to 10 elected officials. That meant some of the city and county elected officials did not complete their terms in office.
“It’s working really well. We’re very excited,” Floore said. “It’s less bureaucracy.”
The motivation to consolidate is the same, regardless of the county’s size, said Dave Wills, a spokesman with the Association of County Commissioners of Georgia.
In larger counties, it’s often a government in a stronger financial position helping out a weaker partner.
“The driving factor is if the citizens would benefit by consolidating local governments,” he said. “It’s not appropriate to consider if it’s good for the elected officials.”
Wills, former Webster County Commission chairman, was in office when his county consolidated about a decade ago.
In Webster County’s case, the motivation was not about one municipality helping another one out of financial difficulties. Instead, they believed consolidation would make the entire county stronger.
Wills said it took 17 months to negotiate a new charter and work out the details to combine the governments.
“Our cities dated each other a long time and finally got married,” he said. “It became an exchange of services that benefited both municipalities.”
A study released after Athens and Clarke County voters approved consolidation in 1990 — the fourth time a referendum on the issue was considered — described the issues leading up to the vote.
County residents were concerned their taxes would go up and the city government would take over the county. But with more residents living outside the city limits, the demand for more urban services increased.
Local governments disagreed about recreation services and water rates, and had different philosophies about whether recreation programs should be active or passive.
The 15-member commission formed to create a new charter did not include any elected officials, though they were encouraged to participate in the meetings.
A transition team after the vote dealt with rate equalization for water services, personnel, budget policy, service districts, combining functions and other issues.
It took two years to reconcile ordinances, with sign ordinances being the most difficult to resolve.
The personnel departments were among the most difficult to unify because of different pay systems, merit bonuses, cost-of-living pay, and entry-level salaries. According to the study, employee morale suffered because of the length of time it took to equalize salaries, with some workers not seeing a pay raise in three years.
Close-out work and reclassifying jobs were also challenging, the study showed.
Additionally, the city and county police forces had differing philosophies for service delivery, with the city police force being more service oriented and the county police force focused more on law enforcement.
It took about six months for law enforcement and other departments to unify. And they did so reluctantly, the study suggested.
At early meetings, officers from the two departments and in other government offices would voluntarily sit on opposite sides of the room. Renovations also had to be done at the police department to accommodate the extra staff.
In other instances, the services provided were complimentary, making them easier to combine.
The study concluded consolidation did not reduce the number of employees, in part because many areas did not have overlapping positions.
Limited reduction in staff was accomplished through attrition, but the unified government had a much larger service area and the county was experiencing population growth at the time.
Other municipalities considering consolidation should not promise it will save money because it cannot be known in advance and may not be realized for years, the study said.
“Merging two governments is an incredibly complex process,” the study said. “Not all the problems can be predicted because each situation is different. The key is to get the employees to buy into the changes, to be adaptable and to be flexible.”
This is the second article in a three-part series exploring government consolidation. Read this weekend’s edition of The Brunswick News to learn about local opinions of consolidation.