At the time of the turn of the last century, the heart of commerce and industry in Columbia County was in the city of Harlem. One hundred years and 95,000 people later, those centers are now located in the Evans town center and the Horizon South Industrial Park.
Long-term viability in Columbia County's two municipalities, Harlem and Grovetown, is a challenge for any leader or city council. According to a recent poll conducted for the Georgia Municipal Association, 82 percent of the populace in Georgia said that a safe, clean, and active town near them was "very" important to their quality of life, while 97 percent said it is important to maintain and improve basic services in their communities.
At the same time, 83 percent said users of such services should help pay for those services (including those users who do not live in the towns, but shop and pass through them).
Between 2,000 and 2,500 of the 7,000 or so people in the 30814 (Harlem) zip code live inside the city limits. The makeup of the Columbia County Board of Commissioners is now such that no member lives South of Interstate 20.
The only way the cities can extend their voice is with growth. In the past 10 years Grovetown has experienced substantial growth. Harlem has stayed more or less the same, inside the city limits. The outlying area has seen growth, but not inside the city.
Some of that responsibility can be laid at the feet of the city, while some of it lies elsewhere. Annexation is a mechanism for growth in any city. South of I-20 there is no county water, currently no county fire protection, and no county sewer service. The two municipalities have been providing the only service to these citizens.
Specifically in the Harlem area, we currently serve more water customers outside the city than inside the city. We charge a higher fee for this service. We currently cover these same residents with fire service even though they are taxed by the county for fire protection.
The word "annexation" has about the same level of attraction as the plague in some areas of the Harlem service district. Why is that? The most common answer is taxes, or misconceptions about taxes. The city of Harlem currently has a millage rate of 5.4280 mills, or $217 on each $100,000 in house value. The city's total income revenue for property tax is about $160,000 out of a $2.2 million budget, while LOST and SPLOST (local option and special-purpose local option sales tax) account for about $600,000 and $450,000, respectively.
Property taxes are a drop in the bucket of the city's total budget. Important, yes! But not the main source of revenue for the city or the county. Sales tax is the lifeblood of all three government entities in this county.
An additional savings to a city resident is the lower water rate as compared to the county resident on the city water system. Also, the city has a six-year contract with its trash hauling company that provides for stable, less-expensive garbage pickup.
Most of the people south of I-20 agree that we have been the county's "redheaded stepchild." However, now that the city wants to raise our cooperative voice, this crowd comes out of the woodwork to have a bloodletting.
The only way that the collective voice for our side of the county is to be heard is if the city's population grows. During negotiations for this last round of the SPLOST (aside from fire issues), the city of Harlem was the only voice asking for sewer line money to aid Campbell's Crossing, water line money for Old Blythe Road, and water line money for Old Union to Old Louisville Road areas.
Why should the city council members speak out for folks whom we do not truly represent? One reason is because we care, and another is that no other voice is being heard. That is not a complaint against Commissioner Lee Anderson. One commissioner can easily be outvoted by the other county commissioners, no matter how much he may try. The county government cannot give a city less than its population in LOST and SPLOST. That is why annexation is important.
Cities across this country grow or die. There is very little land inside the city of Harlem to develop, and annexation is not a fast process. In our growing county we can sit back and enjoy the country lifestyle, for now. Growth is coming whether we like it or not. The folks who owned land around Windmill Plantation lived "in the country" 15 years ago; now they have traffic issues and it takes them longer to get to downtown Augusta than those of us who live "way out" in Harlem.
The city government of Harlem is not out to take away property rights of landowners, as has been the misinformation rumor-mill. Agricultural land will still be the same. However, we aggressively will be seeking area for our city to grow. Growth is coming whether it is wanted or not. We can stick our heads in the sand and ignore it or we can confront it, manage it and adjust to it.
Most of these areas are going to find the city government easier to work with than the county due to the smaller size, local accountability and less bureaucracy. We also strive to provide the best level of service to our citizens while maintaining a solvent city budget.
We strive to be a community of choice for living, working and playing. Our town is a great place to live and raise a family. Annexation and growth will allow others the opportunity to be a part of our great community.
(Scott Dean is the mayor of Harlem.)
The Columbia County News-Times ©2013. All Rights Reserved.