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Savings, efficiency popular consolidation topics

Photo by Casey Dixon

Photo by Casey Dixon

ALBANY -- As city and county leaders have publicly discussed merging the Albany and Dougherty County governments, the topic of saving taxpayer money and streamlining government often surfaces.

In harsh economic times when governments are facing tough financial decisions on what services to cut or how many jobs to furlough or lay off, any measure that would cut costs could be expected to have some intrinsic appeal.

But after speaking with officials across the state who have made the jump to a consolidated government, cutting costs is rarely a key factor and, in some cases, is downplayed altogether.

"It's not something that was a significant factor for us," said Larry Clark, the administrator of the Georgetown-Quitman County government, which merged in 2007. "There have been some savings from reduction in duplication in services and really moreso our government has been extremely streamlined, but that wasn't our reason for consolidating."

Instead, Clark said that their town and county consolidated -- with a population hovering around 3,600 -- to gain countywide access to utility franchises, which has generated roughly one mill in revenue for what he said was the third-poorest county in the state.

"We actually have reserves now and that's saying something," he said.

The story isn't much different in larger communities.

INCREASED EFFICIENCY

In Athens-Clarke County, the merger was done largely because Athens was growing so quickly that it was rapidly consuming Clarke County, which geographically is one of the smallest counties in the state, government spokesperson Jeff Montgomery said.

Athens, which is home to the University of Georgia, was having its tax rolls diminished by the growth of the school, according to a document produced by the government chronicling the history of consolidation in Athens-Clarke county.

That document suggests that government leaders in other communities considering consolidation should not actively promote the cost-savings associated with unification because there is no way to predict how much money would be saved in the long term. And in the short term, costs likely will go up.

In a study commissioned by the Carl Vinson Institute of Government at UGA, the unified government of Athens-Clarke County cost $470,000 in transition expenses, with another $5 million spent to implement the recommendations of outside consultants hired to review compensation and benefits disparities.

Consolidation of the the Athens-Clarke personnel system, which contained different pay scales and fringe benefits, cost an additional $2 million, the study says.

And one of the main reasons for consolidation for Athens-Clarke -- the equalization of water rates for city and county users -- increased the rate paid by city users, who previously were paying less than those in the county for water, while decreasing the rates paid by county residents.

However, in the area of government efficiency, Athens-Clarke experienced tremendous success, the report says.

In the five years following consolidation, general government expenditures declined by 10 percent and finance costs decreased by 16 percent, due largely to the better interest rates on bonds the combined government was able to secure.

"These findings suggest that a city-county consolidation can be efficient and can result in cost savings in some departments. However, this case also demonstrates clearly that the extent to which money is saved in a merger will depend on the design of the new government, as reflected both in its charter and the policy and management decisions of its elected and appointed officials. The act of consolidating will not guarantee more efficient operations, despite what some of its advocates would have us believe. On the other hand, consolidating governments will not necessarily cause expenditures to increase as some opponents suggest," the report concludes.

"Each consolidation must be considered case by case and its fiscal impacts forecast based on the local context," it says.

QUALITY OF LIFE ISSUES

In Albany, the city and county have already consolidated most of the departments, leaving only four that are separate -- police, public works, finance and human resources.

Any savings that would have been realized through the removal of duplication of services have probably already been realized, Charles Bullock, a Ph.D and professor of political science renowned for his knowledge on Southern politics, said.

"Consolidation is becoming more and more popular because of the perceived savings generated when you eliminate any duplicate services," he said. "But in Albany, most of the departments are already combined, so the notion that there would be significant additional savings in the traditional sense may not be true."

Bullock said that when the state passed a law that municipalities and county governments not duplicate services, they were essentially calling for mass consolidation of services. While savings may not be realized through reduction in those services, they could be found through a streamlined government that reduces expenses.

In Augusta, where state leaders forced consolidation after local governments racked up millions of dollars in deficits, Administrator Fred Russell said that consolidation is something that should be thoroughly thought through and that the savings aspect should be secondary to any quality-of-life improvements and efficiencies gained.

"It's more a matter of quality of life than anything," Russell said. "There may have been savings that were realized, but we were limited to reducing personnel because we could only reduce duplicate services through reassignment or attrition, so those were slow to show up. But efficiencies quickly popped up in our service delivery."

The initial transition costs in Albany and Dougherty County are largely immeasurable, officials say. The largest pay disparity exists between county and city law enforcement entities with an estimated $650,000 needed simply to bring officers of the Dougherty County Police Department up to the same pay levels as officers with the Albany Police Department, County Administrator Richard Crowdis said.

There was no immediate data on how much it would cost to bring the Sheriff's Office up to the APD's level, although Sheriff Kevin Sproul has said that the baseline trend is that his deputies make between $3-$4 less per hour less than officers at APD.

Assistant City Manager Wes Smith said public safety would be the largest cost sector left in terms of pay disparity. Public Works, Finance and Human Resources are each much closer in pay than the law enforcement agencies.

Other costs associated with merging are still unclear. The City Commission would like the new commission to be paid at their rate, which is $15,000 per year for board members and $25,000 per year for the mayor. But city commissioners also would like to have a full-time mayor, which would bump that cost higher.

Merging the finance departments likely would not incur much additional cost because city and county already use the same basic programs. Human Resources would likely see some expense as there are different systems between the city and county currently.

MERGERS AT 40

So far, 40 governments across the country have consolidated since New Orleans and Orleans Parrish first did it in 1805. Many others, including Albany and Dougherty County, have tried over the years to do it, according to the National Association of County Governments.

In Georgia, Macon-Bibb County was the first to try consolidation in 1933. That attempt and all subsequent attempts have failed, although a new measure has been undertaken that would slowly consolidate departments in those two governments until full consolidation is achieved in 10 years.

Albany, interestingly, was the second Georgia city to try it. Attempts in 1954 and 1956 were unsuccessful, with only 28 percent of voters supporting the measure in 1954. Voting information from 1956 was not available.

Columbus-Muscogee County was the first Georgia government to successfully unify after a referendum in 1970.

Athens-Clarke was successful on its fourth attempt, which came after the Georgia Constitution was changed to allow the votes of the residents of cities to count twice -- once as a resident of the city and once as a resident of the county -- while those of residents of unincorporated parts of the county count only in the county vote. Officials are quick to downplay the notion that the change to the Constitution was what allowed consolidation in Athens-Clarke county to occur.

But it has been one of the stumbling blocks this time for Albany and Dougherty leaders. County Commissioner Jack Stone has said he will not support a measure that gives county residents unequal standing at the polls.

Mathematically, city voters could force consolidation since there are nearly four times as many registered voters who reside within the city limits as there are who reside in the unincorporated area of the county. Local elections officials say that as of Nov. 1, there were 39,522 registered Albany voters and 49,743 in Dougherty County, which means there are 10,221 registered voters who live in unincorporated Dougherty County.

On consensus, the Dougherty County Commission has decided to send a letter to the General Assembly asking the Legislature to reconsider repealing that amendment.