Ready or not, it may be time to put all the consolidation cards on the table - with voters holding the winning hand.
The idea of incorporating a new city in Columbia County and immediately consolidating it with the existing county government to turn the entire county into a city, has come up before. The discussion stalled the first time, in 1995, when Augusta-Richmond County consolidated first.
At that time, state law prohibited creation of a new city within three miles of an existing city. Thus, Columbia County couldn't consolidate within three miles of the county line.
That changed this past year when Georgia lawmakers removed the buffer to allow the city of Sandy Springs to incorporate in north Fulton County. Local officials, worried that the next legislature could put the buffer back in place statewide, are thus pursing consolidation in what could be a closing window of opportunity.
None of that explains the "why" of consolidation, but it answers the "why now" question.
For the "why," commissioners at 6 p.m. Tuesday at the Appling Courthouse will hold the second of three public meetings to discuss the proposal.
Coincidentally, the Georgia Legislature goes back into session the day before. Statewide, lawmakers will focus on election-year headline-grabbing initiatives; the buffer rule is unlikely to come up. Local lawmakers hesitate to put consolidation before the voters until the issue gets more study.
That hasn't stopped commissioners from demanding a referendum. "I think our state legislators ought to put consolidation on the ballot," says Commissioner Tom Mercer. "It would be a travesty if they didn't put that on the ballot and let the people decide."
The county's consolidation sales pitch hasn't been well-received, but asking that the issue go to voters in July is practically ingenious. If the measure passes, the commissioners will get the government change they believe is best. If it fails, they can bow to the will of "the people."
And if lawmakers refuse to put the issue on the ballot, commissioners can portray them as unwilling to "let the people decide."
Commissioners are betting that their proposal for consolidation would win. The county's legislative delegation, which disagrees, might as well call their bluff.
In the end, voters hold all the cards. Deal them in.
The Columbia County News-Times ©2013. All Rights Reserved.