Town sets example for consolidation
Published 12:00 am Friday, October 31, 2003
The Columbus, Ga., area found itself in a unique position in the late 1960s.
With one major incorporated city, the municipal government and county government found themselves in opposition &045;&045; while they provided the same services and were trying to attract the same industries.
Companies looking for economic development leaders were not sure whom to contact.
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&uot;It was chaotic,&uot; said Red McDaniel, a longtime Columbus councilman. &uot;We had two forms of government.&uot;
Muscogee County, like all Georgia counties, was created by the Legislature. The city was incorporated.
Yet both entities were offering similar services as the population of Columbus spilled out into the county. Muscogee County’s government, designed essentially as a road commission, performed those duties while also establishing traditionally &uot;municipal&uot; services.
Still, city residents complained of being taxed twice because they paid county and city taxes.
&uot;Some of us felt like it would be better if we were one government,&uot; McDaniel said.
The area had some experience with cooperation &045;&045; the health departments and school systems merged decades earlier. Throughout the early 1960s both governments endorsed the idea of consolidation, sough enabling legislation from the state and put it to a vote.
The consolidation failed both in the county and in the city.
The idea resurfaced a few years later, to mixed results. Constitutional amendments allowing &045;&045; though not requiring &045;&045; consolidation of the tax assessor boards and the city and county departments and boards were passed.
By 1967, positive word had spread about successful consolidations in Jacksonville, Fla., and Nashville, Tenn. County leaders &045;&045; opposed to consolidation at the time &045;&045; changed their minds.
The governments formed more committees, conducted studies and held more public meetings, seeking comment and criticism.
Finally, a Muscogee County Charter Commission drew up plans for the new government, which was put to a referendum. On May 27, 1970, the referendum creating a joint government passed four to one.
All of the elected officials at the time &045;&045; a mayor and six city councilmen as well as five county commissioners &045;&045; resigned their seats and ran again for the new government, made up of 10 councilmen and a mayor.
The county was divided into four districts, with an additional six councilmen elected at-large. A city manager was appointed for day-to-day government operation.
An example for others
Mayor J.R. Allen, a tireless supporter of consolidation, was one of the major forces behind the new government, McDaniel said. He had resigned his position in Columbus but was re-elected to the new position.
Allen was later killed in a plane crash &045;&045; ironically, on his way to another Georgia town to present a program about Columbus’ experience with consolidation.
Columbus became a pioneer in consolidation, lending its knowledge to other communities across the state interested in doing the same thing.
McDaniel gets questioned about the consolidation experience all the time. At a reunion this year in Macon, Ga., &uot;you’d be surprised how many people came up to me and said, ‘What can we do to make Macon grow?’&uot; he said.
City Manager Carmen Cavezza recommends that governments &uot;keep it simple&uot; when consolidating.
&uot;You have to compromise,&uot; he said. &uot;Try to spread authority around.&uot;
McDaniel recommends that if Natchez and Adams County are interested in the consolidation process, they should visit Columbus or other communities that have been through it.
Consolidating government has had a number of advantages for Columbus.
&uot;It was much more efficient,&uot; Cavezza said. &uot;It’s worked out real well for us. I can’t imagine doing it any other way&uot;
Initially, consolidating government isn’t a money-saving venture, Cavezza said.
&uot;If they’re going into it with the thought they’re going to save a lot of money initially they’re wrong,&uot; he said. &uot;It’s going to take a while to transition, but in the long run, it is better.&uot;
But citizens can save money on their tax bills, McDaniel said.
&uot;If we hadn’t consolidated, taxes would be out of sight,&uot; he said.
In addition, industries are more comfortable talking to one government, he said. Columbus is now growing, with new industries and new businesses building throughout the community.
&uot;It’s just the unity of effort,&uot; Cavezza said.
The county-wide elections that followed consolidation saw the first blacks elected to office, McDaniel said.
&uot;That has helped race relations,&uot; he said.
The government has been able to pass two sales tax referendums for special needs &045;&045; including a civic center. Their passage, in part, is because residents have &uot;a lot of confidence in their government.&uot;
Before consolidation, McDaniel said, Columbus and Muscogee County governments were often at odds with each other and were simply jealous of each other, McDaniel said. Combining the two has erased much of that animosity.
&uot;We can work together better as one rather than two,&uot; McDaniel said.