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Local squabbles also hit statewide

Posted: Wednesday, February 01, 2006

Columbia County's government has been skirmishing with the smaller city governments of Harlem and Grovetown for several years on various issues, with consolidation just the latest squabble.

But statewide, the fights between cities and counties are starting to look like open warfare.

At issue is the difference in powers granted to city and county governments. It's the core reason for Columbia County's attempt to incorporate and then consolidate: The change would create a unified government with the authority of both a city and a county.

Currently, one of those powers is a city's ability to extract franchise fees from utilities. That power has now led groups representing cities and counties into a battle in the Georgia Public Service Commission that may spill over into the state Legislature.

Specifically, Cobb County and the Association County Commissioners of Georgia are asking the PSC to compel Georgia Power Co. to collect franchise fees only where those fees are spent. Currently, the utility collects the fee statewide, from every customer - about $2.5 million a year in Columbia County alone - but only cities have access to the funds.

The ACCG wants the PSC to treat Georgia Power like the telephone or natural gas companies. Those utilities add franchise fees to the bills of city residents, and then pass the funds along to the city governments. Georgia Power would still remit the money to the cities, but the PSC petition would force the utility to collect the fees from city residents only.

The alternative would be for Georgia Power to pay franchise fees to all governments, cities and counties alike - an outcome the counties have sought for years. That sounds fair. But to no surprise, neither alternative sits well with the Georgia Municipal Association, which hopes to preserve the cities' preferential treatment.

These issues have been front and center in Columbia County's push for consolidation, which now moves on to the Legislature for consideration next Monday. Likely it will hit a significant slowdown:"I personally don't think we will handle it," says state Sen. Jim Whitehead."In my opinion, it is nowhere near where it needs to be."

Whitehead also says lawmakers have been hearing about"rumors" involving changes in franchise fees, but thus far no legislation has been introduced.

Whatever the case, efforts such as the PSC petition, or"rumors" about changes in the law, should not be what guides county officials or the local legislative delegation to suggest a future course for Columbia County.

And in the end, it will all be up to citizens to decide - either at the ballot box when they consider who will represent them, or in a referendum when consolidation is laid out for a vote.


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