Besides discussions about new county district maps, one of the items on the agenda for Mondays meeting of the legislative delegation is the first real public discussion of the idea of consolidating Columbia Countys government with the cities of Grovetown and Harlem.
To be realistic, what consolidation - or unification, the preferred term - is all about is eliminating the separate cities as government entities, and giving the county the legal advantages that come with city and county governments.
In addition to cost savings through an end to duplicated government services, the advantages are potentially huge:
Upwards of $5 million in franchise fees from utilities would become available to the unified government. That would help alleviate a pending budget crunch and stave off talk of a property tax increase on homeowners.
Funds from the special-purpose, local-option sales tax (SPLOST) could be used for water, sewer and stormwater projects countywide. That could eliminate the need for the stormwater utility fee, or rain tax.
Grovetown and Harlem wouldnt have to face the harsh choices likely to come as their share of the local option sales tax (LOST) dwindles along with their proportion of the countys population.
The costs of unification are less tangible. Much of the focus is on the loss of the two cities as separate governments, but state Rep. Ben Harbin rightly says a bigger hurdle is selling the idea to county residents who believe they already have a unified government. And while sentimentality is strong for the identity of Harlem and Grovetown - defended to a near-maudlin degree by state Rep. Bill Jackson - those cities make up less than 10 percent of the countys population. Its the other 90 percent of residents wholl need to be convinced that unification is a good idea.
One thing is certain: Augustas dismal experience with consolidation shouldnt be the bogeyman that scares away useful dialogue on the topic. Its an idea worth studying, in spite of our neighbors problems.
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