Seven years ago, we developed a vision for the county that stated Columbia County is to be recognized as a premier place in which to work and live. This year, we were recognized by Money magazine as one of the best places to live in the United States. Even with our "growing pains," we scored well in comparison to the other top 100 areas in financial, housing, education, quality of life, leisure and culture and weather categories. Exceeding these expectations and maintaining excellence in government is our continuing challenge.
As we look to the future, incorporation and consolidation are the main keys to our continuing success. But what is consolidation? It is the merging of a county government with one or more municipal governments (i.e., cities) in a metropolitan area to create a single, unified governmental unit. There are 33 consolidated governments in the United States - four in Georgia.
In 1991 and again in 1995, studies were done to determine the benefit of consolidation for the County. In both reports, it was recommended that the county consolidate with either one or both of the two cities (i.e., Grovetown or Harlem) and have a county-wide fire service. When presented this opportunity twice, both cities declined and the idea was tabled.
Over the years, several commissions have been interested in incorporation and consolation because the cities remain uninterested in consolidation, but were limited by the state law that required a 3-mile buffer between cities.
Because of a change in the state law this year removing the 3-mile buffer, Columbia County now has the unique opportunity to create a city in the more populated area of the county for the express purpose of consolidation. In order to incorporate, the area must fit into these parameters:
Total population of at least 200 persons;
Average residential population is 200 persons per square mile;
60 percent of the area is used for non-agricultural purposes; and,
60 percent of residential lots and tracts are 5 acres or less in size
But the real question is, "What's in it for me/us?" The following is a short explanation of the positive aspects of consolidation for us now and in the future:
1. It puts our name on the map. For economic development and tourism, we need a name that will be on maps and road signs. In our recent award from Money magazine, they dubbed Evans a city in an attempt to recognize the achievements of this whole area.
2. Nothing changes. No additional layer of government, employees, etc.
3. Additional revenue source from franchise fees. The $5 million from annual franchise fees could be directed to specific infrastructure projects such as transportation, stormwater and recreation without having a tax increase. The county would ask the voters to approve a $30 million bond issue in conjunction with the consolidation approval to pay for these pressing projects which would then be repaid by these franchise fees. This would allow the county to accomplish these necessary projects quickly.
It must be noted that natural gas and telephone customers would probably see a 3 percent increase in their bills as the utilities "pass through" this franchise fee.
4. Being both a city and a county. State law has certain restrictions on counties that it does not apply to cities. It would be advantageous to "play both sides of the street."
This also provides flexibility with SPLOST. Currently, only cities can use SPLOST funds for water, sewer and stormwater projects. They can also set a monetary limit for their SPLOST and can continue to collect funds until that limit is met. This would allow all projects to be completed. Counties are limited to a 5-year collection period, and often projects do not get funded.
5. Prevents another city from forming and providing duplicative and conflicting services. In a time when efficient and cost-effective government is a must, the formation of more incorporated areas would be a duplication of efforts and cause additional taxation for those areas.
6. Federal grants. As a city, we would be eligible for more federal grants.
7. Economies of scale. In areas such as purchasing, bulk is cheaper. We need to keep our county as cost-efficient as possible.
8. Maintain community identity. There are many wonderful areas in the county, and it is intention that they would maintain their unique character and names. For example, the Bronx, Manhattan and Harlem are very distinct areas within in New York City.
The Carl Vinson Institute of Government at the University of Georgia presented to the county a list of "typical" negatives to incorporation/consolidation. Because of our unique situation (i.e., not having to combine two governmental entities), this list of negatives does not apply:
1. Bigger is not always better. This is not an attempt to grow government. It is an effort to ensure that government will be efficient and cost-effective by streamlining.
2. Costs associated with transition. There will be minor costs for legal fees and staff time to accomplish this consolidation.
3. Creates a bigger bureaucracy. Our goal is to ensure that no additional layers of government bureaucracy are created now or in the future.
4. City or county may lay off employees. There will be no additional hiring or firing or employees. As a matter of fact, the community will not notice any change in their government or services.
5. Differences in ordinances/zoning between city and county. The unincorporated area of the county has consistency in its zoning, and this would not change.
6. Duplicate police forces. Our Sheriff's Office is currently serving the unincorporated area in an excellent manner, as stated in our evaluation from Money magazine. Our rate of crime is one of the lowest in the country, and duplication of services would be ineffective and a waste of taxpayer money.
7. "If it ain't broke, don't fix it." This concept is looking only at the current situation. We need to ensure that the county has all the options it will need for the future. Being a city/county would guarantee that we could take the best from both worlds and use them to our advantage.
At this point in time, we have a unique opportunity to create a city in the more populated area of the county and then instantly consolidate that city into the county, creating a single, consolidated government. This must be done by assistance from our Legislative Delegation to allow you, the voters of the county, to make the final decision.
If incorporation/ consolidation happened:
The two currently incorporated areas - Grovetown and Harlem - would remain distinct cities.
If the voters do not approve consolidation, then no city would be formed.
Changing one's government is a serious and legally-complicated matter, but the long-range advantages to our citizens make it vitally important that we study the matter in great depth and act in accordance to the welfare of the whole county now and for generations to come. The Board of Commissioners invites all the county citizens to learn with us and to understand the benefits of this exciting proposed change.
We have enjoyed tremendous success in the last few years. To just name a few:
Recognized in a national magazine as being the 32nd best place to live in the country;
Initiated 24/7 fire service in the unincorporated area of the county;
One of five counties in Georgia to have a AA bond rating;
Initiated a National Day of Prayer breakfast;
Began an economic development partnership with Lincoln, McDuffie, Warren and Wilkes Counties;
One of three counties in the state to receive a $500,000 Mobile Operations Center;
No tax millage increases in seven years (except in 2004 we added the fire millage to replace subscription fees) as well as receiving the Certificate of Achievement for Excellence in Financial Reporting awarded by the Government Finance Officers Association;
$1.2 million greenspace acquisitions;
Implemented a county-wide "No Smoking Ordinance";
Had a successful, nationally recognized bass tournament;
Have a fully grant-funded CERT program with 135 graduates, with the only CERT team in the country to be deployed to the Katrina disaster; and,
Our Sheriff's Office was the first in the state to receive accreditation for the Sheriff's Office and the Communication Center.
Obviously, Columbia County is blessed with great success through hard work and integrity, but consolidation is equal to or greater in importance than all these achievements and will have a profoundly positive impact for generations to come.
When the citizens of the county have learned about the benefits of consolidation, the Board of Commissioners is confident they will back incorporation/consolidation as an asset to the whole county now and especially in the years to come. Let's do this for our children and grandchildren!
(Ron Cross is chairman of the Columbia County Board of Commissioners.)
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