By Maria Saporta
A new tale of “two Georgias” is evolving as local governments take different approaches to respond to modern day issues.
On July 31, metro Atlanta added yet another city to its region when voters decided to create a new City of Brookhaven. This follows the establishment of a host of new cities in the Atlanta region — Sandy Springs (2005), Johns Creek (2006), Milton (2006), Chattahoochee Hills (2007) Dunwoody (2008) and Peachtree Corners (2011).
But in another part of the state, a totally different vote was underway on July 31.
Voters in the City of Macon and Bibb County decided to consolidate the city and county governments.
So as one region is splintering into smaller and smaller pieces, another region is choosing to create a more unified government structure.
Macon-Bibb is only the latest in more than a half-dozen counties in the state that have opted for consolidated government.
In 1971, the City of Columbus and Muscogee County consolidated bringing together two governments that had been independent since 1828 when the city was founded and 1825 when the county was founded.
That was followed by the unification of the City of Athens and Clarke County in 1990 — an effort that had been decades in the making. It started in 1955 when the school systems of Athens and Clarke were consolidated. And then there were several attempts in the 1960s, the 1970s and the 1980s to totally consolidate the city and the county.
Finally, on Aug. 7, 1990, there was a successful referendum to create a consolidated Athens-Clarke government — the measure approved by a margin of nearly 60 percent in both the city and county.
Until the Macon-Bibb County consolidation, the latest major city and county to consolidate was the City of Augusta and Richmond County in 1996. At the time that merger was approved, voters did decide to keep two other Richmond County cities — Hephzibah and Blythe — as separate governments.
The bottom line is that with the exception of metro Atlanta, most of the other major cities in Georgia are moving to a more unified form of government. Interestingly enough, both the Augusta and Columbus regions passed the 1 percent regional transportation sales tax — perhaps an indication of a more regional mindset in those communities.
Lamar Norton, executive director of the Georgia Municipal Association, said that Macon Mayor Robert Reichert was a key champion in the Macon-Bibb consolidation vote.
“Mayor Reichert is an outstanding mayor who is very focused and very loyal to his city and to Middle Georgia,” Norton said. “People there listen to Robert, and he thought this would move that part of the state forward. The timing was probably right. This is the best opportunity for Macon and Bibb County to live up to their potential.”
Dating back to when I was a reporter for the Macon Telegraph covering county government in the early 1980s, there were community conversations about consolidating the city and Bibb.
But consolidating governments is a tricky feat because it means that some one or some entity will have to give up some political power in the hope that a region can create a more efficient government.
“Hopefully they’ll see some reduction in costs,” Norton said of Macon-Bibb. “It’s an opportunity to reinvigorate the economy in that part of the state.”
Otis White, president and founder of Atlanta-based Civic Strategies, pointed out some parallels between metro Atlanta and Macon-Bibb.
“The creation of new governments and the elimination of governments are two sides of the same coin,” White said. “We have become dissatisfied with our governments. People are unhappy.”
It’s just that voters have chosen to respond in different ways in different parts of the state.
In metro Atlanta, much of the desire to create new cities has been driven by a desire of wealthier areas to unbuckle from counties with financial challenges.
“You don’t tend to find poor areas incorporating for obvious reasons,” White said. “They don’t have the tax base to support a new government.”
In some ways, Georgia makes it easy to create new cities. Other states like Florida require that if you start a new city government, you have to reimburse the county for all the money that it has invested in an area. That policy can curb a “new city” appetite rather quickly.
Compared to Texas and North Carolina, Georgia also makes it harder for cities to annex new areas, according to White. It used to be that when an area wanted municipal services, such as sewer or trash pick-up, it would be annexed into an existing city. Over time, Georgia’s counties actually have begun providing a host of municipal services that used to only be offered by cities.
Ross King, executive director of the Association County Commissioners Georgia, said there are other options for local governments to work together short of consolidation.
King described one of those as “functional consolidation” — when two governments decide to consolidate certain services. For example, in South Georgia area that includes Americus and Sumter County, eight counties got together to offer “consolidated enhanced ‘911’ services.”
Other communities have found was to consolidate libraries, schools, parks and recreation as well as arts and cultural affairs programs.
For decades, there had been talk about consolidating the governments of the City of Atlanta and Fulton County. Twenty years ago, the consulting firm of McKinsey & Co., helped coordinate discussions on a possible consolidation of Atlanta and Fulton. But those never materialized.
The two local governments, however, have joined together to provide shared services, such as the Atlanta-Fulton County library system. There also have been some folks who have proposed a closer alliance between the City of Atlanta, Fulton and DeKalb counties because those entities already support MARTA and Grady Hospital
But now the trend is moving in the opposite direction with growing talk of splitting off the North Fulton County area into a new Milton County.
As King sees it, the state could play a more important role in getting local governments to work together if it provided incentives for cities and counties to work across political boundaries — in an effort to save overhead costs and taxpayer dollars.
“If two counties or three or more worked together, there would be greater efficiencies,” King said. “Functional consolidation of services is a bold step that can and should be taken. Then the next logical step then would be full consolidation.”
That may be true in the rest of Georgia, but it probably won’t happen in metro Atlanta any time soon. And that’s a shame.