The hot topic was consolidation at Columbia County's quarterly meeting with city officials from Harlem and Grovetown on Wednesday.
Columbia County Commission had voted unanimously at Tuesday night's meeting for documentation on consolidation to be prepared and presented to the area's legislative delegation. The commission is wanting to create a city in the Martinez-Evans area that will then be consolidated with the unincorporated areas of Columbia County, if approved by voters.
"We're trying to prepare for the future," said Todd Glover, the county's Management Services Division director, during a presentation at Wednesday's city-county meeting at the Harlem Women's Club.
Consolidation could come with many pros, Glover said, including franchise fees, more opportunities for federal funds, more flexibility on how 1-cent sales tax funds are spent and help with putting Columbia County on the map.
"If we get name recognition, we can bring more industry in here," County Commissioner Tommy Mercer said at the meeting. "If we get more industry in here, we all win ... I think that's a big plus."
Harlem and Grovetown city officials, however, say name recognition can't balance out what they consider a huge disadvantage to consolidation. Consolidation of the unincorporated areas of the county would landlock both cities, limiting growth.
Grovetown Mayor Dennis Trudeau asked county officials to consider leaving growing room for each city.
"That will be part of the consideration," county commission Chairman Ron Cross said.
Harlem Mayor Scott Dean said he would be willing to go along with consolidation if three issues were considered. He said he'd like area legislators, including state Sen. Jim Whitehead, R-Evans, and Rep. Barry Fleming, R-Harlem - who supported more communication about the topics with city officials - to consider allowing residents living on property contiguous to but outside the city to be allowed to choose to enter the city or stay in the county.
Dean said he also wants legislators to consider whether county residents would be taxed extra without reaping the benefits of a city's higher level of service. Dean hopes that a floor for what percentage of local option sale tax and special purpose local option sales tax funds the city receives also will be part of the consolidation contracts.
"We have to work with state legislators to come up with an agreement we all can live with," Dean said.
With the support of area legislators, the consolidation idea could be presented to the Georgia General Assembly as early as January.
The Legislature could vote to put the proposal on a ballot as a one-question referendum as early as July.
The decision to incorporate the Martinez-Evans area into a city and consolidate it with the unincorporated areas of the county will be included in the referendum question.
If it does not pass, the new city will not stand alone, Cross said.
"The citizens will make the final decision," Glover said.
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