About 50 people attended the first in a series of three meetings Thursday on the possibility of a consolidation in Columbia County.
The county staff's newly revised presentation on consolidation met with mixed reviews as more than a dozen people peppered commissioners and county staff with concerns about franchise fees, the possibility of consolidation reducing or capping sales tax revenues for Grovetown and Harlem and restriction of growth in the cities.
"This presentation has marginalized and minimized Harlem and Grovetown," said Sonny MacDowell, a resident of Grovetown for the past five years.
MacDowell was opposed to a portion of the presentation that outlined the percentage of sales tax money the cities receive compared to the percentage of county population the cities make up.
Under the current local option sales tax-distribution agreement, Grovetown receives 9 percent of that tax revenue, and Harlem receives 5 percent, according to the county demonstration. Grovetown and Harlem make up only 6.82 percent and 2.03 percent of the county's population, respectively.
Grovetown and Harlem residents at the meeting said consolidation would restrict the growth of the cities by curtailing annexation of land for commercial and residential use, limiting the amount of sales and property tax revenue the cities could collect.
"The small commercial growth (in the cities) will lead to bigger commercial growth," MacDowell said.
Columbia County Commis-sion Chairman Ron Cross said the cities collect more than their share of sales tax revenue.
MacDowell said Columbia County should not treat the cities as though they were on welfare because the sales tax agreements were negotiated and agreed on by the county commission and the cities.
Grovetown Mayor Dennis Trudeau and Harlem Mayor Scott Dean have opposed consolidation for these reasons, but before Thursday's meeting, Trudeau said he had a change of heart.
"I hesitantly support the consolidation, providing we can have continued growth in Grovetown," Trudeau said in a telephone interview.
He said he could not provide a specific reason pending negotiations with the county.
Grovetown Councilman George James said that in a conversation he had with Trudeau on Thursday, the mayor told him the reversal came after a Wednesday meeting with county officials, including Cross.
James said Trudeau was told he would have to support the consolidation of unincorporated areas if he expects Grovetown to get sewer tie-ins it needs from the county to support Grovetown's considerable residential growth.
At Thursday's public hearing, Cross confirmed he had met with Trudeau and offered him 2,000 sewer-line hookups during the next 15 years but, he said, the sewer line offer had no condition that Grovetown back consolidation.
Cross said the county made the offer to Grovetown not to buy city officials' support, but to show them something positive that could result if consolidation were approved. Financing sewer-line hookups, he said, could be included in a bond referendum approved by voters as part of consolidation.
Utility franchise fees would be used to help secure a potential $30 million bond for infrastructure improvements, Cross said.
"If they want the sewer capacity, the system has to be improved to meet the projected growth goals," Cross said. "They can supply the money, or we can incorporate this issue and have it included in the bond from the franchise fees.''
Cross said the county is considering an agreement that would allow the cities to annex west from Grovetown and east from Harlem and to allow Harlem to annex north toward Interstate 20.
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