Learn from those who have done it.
Harlem resident Buck Story explains his continuing resistance to countywide incorporation or consolidation to Ralph Walker (right), the director of the ASU Research Foundation, and former Augusta Mayor Charles A. Devaney, at the monthly meeting of the Democratic Party of Columbia County. Walker and Devaney discussed the advantages and disadvantages of consolidation.
Photo by Valerie Rowell
That is what the Columbia County Democratic Party was hoping to do when it invited Augusta State political science professor Ralph Walker and former Augusta Mayor Charles A. Devaney to discuss county incorporation and consolidation at the group's monthly meeting Monday.
Walker, the director of the ASU Research Center, consulted Augusta officials, including then-Mayor Devaney, during Augusta's city-county consolidation in the early 1990s and has consulted city and county governments on the topic since the early 1970s.
"There are no stumbling blocks for consolidation or incorporation other than whether the people want it or not," Walker said at the meeting.
County officials have been discussing the possibility of incorporating Evans into a city, then consolidating that city with the county.
Walker said officials do not have to turn Evans into a city to incorporate all of the county.
In 1991, Columbia County faced three problems that prevented consolidation. A recent change in legislation negated a 3-mile buffer zone required around an incorporated area including Harlem and Grovetown and along the Richmond County line. At the time of the study, a quarter of the county would have been ineligible for consolidation.
Consolidation legislation also requires at least 200 people per square mile and for 60 percent of the lots to be smaller than five acres. Both requirements have now been met.
"Do it right the first time," Devaney said, adding that consolidation legislation for Augusta was passed with the understanding that mistakes in it would be corrected, but he said they never were.
"If you do (consolidate or incorporate), it's not always going to be easy. Public involvement is essential. Expect some bumps along the way, but expect upsides as well."
There are definitely advantages, officials were told. The consolidated government would become eligible for more federal grant money. The county also could collect franchise fees from service providers such as Georgia Power Co., Atlanta Gas Light Co. and cable service providers.
Walker said at the time of the most recent study, the county could have collected more than $4 million in franchise fees, which are only paid to incorporated governments. With more residents and more service providers, that number would be much higher.
Dave Titus, who was a commissioner when Walker conducted a 1991 feasibility study about the possibility of consolidation in Columbia County, said he pushed for the consolidation then and is still in favor of it because of the boost franchise fees would give government.
"Just because of our form of government ... it was a missed opportunity," Titus said, adding that he'd like to see the consolidation happen to take advantage of the franchise fees Grovetown and Harlem already collect.
But officials for the two cities have already said they are reluctant to jump on the consolidation bandwagon.
The percentage of local option sales tax funds each city receives would drop by roughly half, Walker said. Under either consolidation or incorporation, the two cities would be landlocked, with no more annexation possibilities.
Buck Story, of Harlem, was on the 1991 committee regarding the feasibility study.
"I was against it then, and I am against it now, too," Story said.
Walker and Devaney said they understand the concerns of the cities, but they still advocated for the change, stating that a county government can't handle urban problems.
"In five or 10 years, you will need a city-type government," Walker said. "If you don't do something now, you'll wish you did."
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