Professor: Many areas explore consolidation, but it’s not easy

Published 12:00 am Friday, October 31, 2003

NATCHEZ &045;&045; Marty Wiseman wasn’t a bit surprised to hear that Natchez-Adams County residents were once again batting around the idea of city-county consolidation.

Economic woes are forcing many local governments to find ways to cut costs, and more of them are at least casually discussing the idea of merging some city and county functions or merging the governments altogether.

Wiseman said he has heard from Senate bill drafters that several cities and counties &045;&045; although no specifics were available as of press time &045;&045; have requested bills be presented to the Legislature in its 2004 session to amend the state constitution to allow consolidation.

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While it’s too soon to call it a trend Wiseman, director of the Stennis Institute for Government at Mississippi State University, noted that &uot;when budgets get tight and revenues get short, people start looking for solutions, and this is one of them.&uot;

That being said, however, consolidation can cost local governments more than they save in many cases, Wiseman said.

&uot;Once you equalize the level of services in the city and county, sometimes it costs you more money,&uot; Wiseman said.

An example is fire protection, he said.

It would take thousands of dollars to improve water pressure, bring on more full-time firefighters and make other improvements to cover the entire county with the same fire rating enjoyed by the city.

&uot;You might save $150 in insurance, but it might cost you $600 to $800 more&uot; to pay for the necessary upgrades in fire service, Wiseman said.

In addition, city-county consolidation can bring city building codes and zoning ordinances into areas people moved into to escape such regulations in the first place, Wiseman said.

And the Mississippi Municipal League does not support consolidation &uot;because we feel cities are the foundation of the economic base,&uot; said Jeannie Smith, executive director of the league.

&uot;And cities provide all the basic services not normally provided by the county,&uot; Smith said.

One solution is for cities and counties to form interlocal agreements for certain services &045;&045; such as fire protection, in Natchez-Adams’ case.

Wiseman said recreation is another good example.

And Natchez-Adams’ governmental bodies have already approved an ILA for countywide recreation, although funding details for the recreation commission are still being ironed out.

With ILAs, Wiseman said, &uot;there are possibilities of doing what the consolidators want to do.&uot;

In fact, some states are actively pushing the idea of ILAs &045;&045; for example, Georgia, which requires cities and counties to consolidate some services to be able to vote on a local option sales tax.

ILAs &uot;are a way to push for efficiency,&uot; he said.

&uot;But if you’re talking about a city losing its identity, you’ll usually get too much resistance.&uot;