We've heard the wishful thinking and the rationalizations to the contrary: Tuesday's ballot questions were non-binding, with results delivered by the lowest number of primary voters in nearly 20 years.
Still, the answers to three of the questions in the primary are likely the final nail in the coffin of Columbia County consolidation.
Fresh from a harder than expected re-election victory over an ill-prepared opponent, County Commission Chairman Ron Cross had been disappointed earlier this year when the county's legislative delegation refused to put a consolidation referendum on the general election ballot.
After seeing consolidation fail badly in all three questions in Tuesday's Republican and Democrat primaries, Cross struggled when asked whether those questions were a valid measure of the community's pulse. "There's a way to word things in almost any poll to achieve the desired result," Cross said, noting that the county's own phone poll found 58 percent support for the idea.
Really? Those people must have stayed home Tuesday. Even factoring in low turnout - which generally means apathetic and content voters don't show up - every mention of consolidation went down in flames.
On the Republican side, there were two questions:
• Should the county, excluding the cities of Harlem and Grovetown, become an incorporated/consolidated government entity? Just more than 63 percent of voters said "no."
• Would you be in favor of the cities of Harlem and Grovetown consolidating with Columbia County to form one consolidated government? The response was slightly more unfavorable with 68 percent saying no.
One question also appeared on the Democrats' ballot:
• Do you support the consolidation/incorporation of Columbia County? Nearly 60 percent said no.
Rather than being designed to "achieve the desired result," those questions could hardly be worded more directly. In fact, the combination of the three lays out the bare bones of the issue for voters to consider, and the results are clear.
For an example of a loaded question, look at the Democratic Party's inquiry on the proposed bond referendum county officials want: "Are you in favor of a property tax increase to pay for the proposed $40 million worth of capital improvement projects?" The result, as coaxed, was 82 percent disapproval. A more neutrally worded bond question on the GOP ballot failed, too.
Loaded question or not, county officials hope to convince voters to approve a $40 million bond referendum this fall for infrastructure improvements. It's clear the effort will take a significant public relations initiative; the recent thaw in discussions with Harlem and Grovetown is a great start.
But it also seems painfully obvious that if commissioners want the focus to be on projects they plan to ask the citizens to pay for, in the foreseeable future they'll keep the word "consolidation" off their lips - because voters don't want to hear any more about it.
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