The third and final informational meeting on a proposed consolidation in Columbia County ended with more questions than answers for those attending.
"I'm not for consolidation, and I'm not against it,'' said Bob Newkirk, who spoke out at Tuesday's meeting. "What I am is more confused with every meeting I attend ... In the two meetings I have attended, I have not heard one citizen stand up here and say, 'I'm 100 percent behind consolidation.' I'm hearing people say, 'I have questions.'''
One man did stand up toward the end of the meeting to say he is for consolidation because it would improve infrastructure. His view, however, was just one among many who spoke out saying they either were opposed to a consolidation or that they didn't have enough information to decide.
"My observation is there appears to be a little resistance to this proposal by the county,'' said resident Jim Cagle, to the laughs of those in the Evans Government Complex auditorium, which offered standing- room-only space because there were more than 150 people in attendance.
The questions from the crowd followed a 30-minute presentation by county officials on consolidation. Officials said the idea would be to incorporate the Evans-Martinez area and then consolidate it with the county government, resulting in no change in the structure of the county government.
One advantage, officials said, would be that the county would receive franchise fees, which are charged to utility companies for the use of the county's right of way. Officials say the county would receive as much as $5 million a year in franchise fees, which cannot be collected without a consolidated government. That money, they said, would be used on needed infrastructure projects such as stormwater work throughout the county.
Other issues, such as name recognition, also were brought up by county officials to support consolidation.
"This isn't just about franchise fees,'' said Todd Glover, the county's Management Services director. He said consolidation also is about "preserving simplicity of government,'' because it would prevent other cities from forming in the county.
Still, the issue of franchise fees took center stage at the meeting when Republican Party Chairman Lee Muns mentioned "a rumor" that legislation might be introduced in the Georgia Legislature to allow nonconsolidated governments to collect franchise fees. He asked why the county wouldn't support such legislation instead of pursuing consolidation to get franchise fees.
"If they pass that law on franchise fees, that's great,'' Glover said. "But it isn't the only reason to consolidate.''
County Administrator Steve Szablewski said he had not seen any such legislation.
Commissioner Steve Brown said consolidation is all about efficiency of government.
"Some say, 'Well, it's not broke, don't fix it.' Well, I think it's broke,'' he said.
In the end, many residents from the rural area said they were still not sure how a consolidation would benefit them. Some asked if a list had been compiled on how franchise fees from a consolidation would fund infrastructure projects in their area.
County officials said that such a list is being compiled and that a more-detailed proposal could go to area legislators in February. Officials also told the crowd that they are now leaning more toward November instead of July for a consolidation idea to go before voters.
To do so, the idea must first be presented by the area's legislative delegation in the state Legislature, which must then vote as a whole on whether a consolidation should go before voters. The area's legislative delegation has not said whether it will present the idea this legislative session.
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