LEESBURG, Ga. -- During the recently ended summer of political discontent and into this fall of uncertainty, a number of Leesburg residents have registered complaints that focus on "what we're getting for the extra 6 mills of taxes we're paying."
Followed, inevitably, by a word that's as frightening to some officials as it is intriguing to others: consolidation.
And while that one word still stirs passions in many Dougherty Countians, given the million-dollar-plus taxpayer-funded study that they still haven't had an opportunity to vote on, it's generated only sporadic interest in one of Georgia's fastest growing communities.
Asked about the possibility of a future community dialogue on the pluses and minuses of consolidation, several Lee County officials said that while there are merits to the concept, there has not been enough interest in it to warrant consideration.
"I've never heard a discussion about consolidation in any official conversation, but I've had people broach the subject from time to time," County Commission Vice Chairman Rick Muggridge said. "Like most people in our area, Albany is a part of me and as I watched the governments of Albany and Dougherty County wrestle with the issue, I definitely thought about it."
The 2007 passage of Georgia House Bill 489, which ordered governing bodies in Georgia's 159 counties to eliminate any duplication of services, forced a cutback in overlapping services provided by the governments in the counties and the cities within their boundaries.
Partly because of that bill and partly out of fiscal necessity, the governing bodies in Lee County, Leesburg and Smithville have effectively worked together to assure blanket countywide fire protection, emergency medical services, E911 dispatch, jail, code enforcement, zoning, building inspection, planning and engineering services.
Still, residents living within the Leesburg city limits pay an additional 6 mills in taxes for that right, and Smithville residents pay an additional 4 mills. That has stirred up a number of citizens in the two municipalities, but officials in both of the incorporated communities say additional benefits provided are important to residents.
"I have heard people complain (about the additional taxes) before, but when they consider the additional services they receive in the incorporated areas, I don't think there's a whole lot of difference between that and what taxpayers in the unincorporated areas pay," Leesburg City Clerk Casey Moore said.
Among the additional services mentioned by Moore are more concentrated police protection, police presence in the county's schools, street lights and sidewalks at no monthly charge to taxpayers, roadside pickup of inert materials and lower utilities rates. These, and other services, leave Leesburg residents with a 34.416 millage rate, compared to a 28.416 rate in the unincorporated portion of the county. (By comparison, the city of Albany is taxed at a millage rate of 39.249, while residents of unincorporated Dougherty County are taxed at a 37.861 rate. Rates in Mitchell County and Camilla are 31.573 and 38.818, respectively.)
Public safety will always be a key component of Smithville citizens' concerns, according to the city's attorney, Tommy Coleman.
"Since Smithville is such an isolated community, I think the only way to make them comfortable is to make sure the community has its own police department," Coleman said. "If you talk about consolidation in the county, there would have to be some sort of agreement to that effect.
"You're talking about an enclave of poor in a wealthy county, and I think (consolidation) would be a difficult concept to sell here. There are plenty of folks in the community who already feel they don't get their fare share."
Smithville residents are taxed at a 32.416 millage rate, leading resident and unsuccessful Lee County Commission candidate Mary Egler to say during her campaign, "About the only thing we get here for our tax money is garbage pickup, and they don't do that very well."
Leesburg Mayor Jim Quinn said the complexities of a consolidation agreement would make it much tougher to incorporate than most people suspect.
"It's actually a very complicated process," Quinn said. "There are some issues that, frankly, would be difficult to work out. And the thing that would probably get a lot of people's attention is that if the county governments were incorporated, there would most likely have to be an increase in the county's millage rate.
"We haven't done a study on the issue -- which we'd have to do -- but I don't think the people in the county are going to want to increase their millage rate just to consolidate the governments."
If anyone in Lee County knows about consolidation of governing bodies, it's interim County Administrator Al Crace. Crace served as an administrator in the Athens and Clarke County governments before and after consolidation.
"Really, if there's going to be a successful consolidation, there usually has to be a compelling issue to drive it, some sort of underlying dissatisfaction," Crace said. "In Athens, the county is so small it had become pretty much one big urban area and there was no need for two governments.
"In Richmond County-Augusta, the city of Augusta was unraveling financially, while down in Jacksonville (Florida) there was a level of corruption that drove them to unification."
Crace said there are several points of view that would have to be considered for consolidation in Lee County.
"From a cost-efficiency standpoint -- the idea that it's cheaper to have one government than two -- there are a lot of services in Lee County that are already offered countywide," he said. "There wouldn't be much windfall there.
"When you look at land use, development and policy it becomes a matter of intimacy and personal contact. People may have a sense that they're losing touch if they don't have all those representatives that are a part of each governing body. And that personal touch is important. It becomes a matter of what people feel they're giving up."
A NEW TOWN?
Leesburg City Attorney Bert Gregory, a partner in the Americus firm Barnes, Nesmith, Eidson & Gregory, said people often overlook the legislative component when discussing consolidation. "Something like that usually depends on what services are needed," he said.
Both Gregory and Muggridge say that while consolidation has not necessarily been a hot topic in Lee County, the incorporation of southern Lee County into a separate municipality, much like Sandy Springs, John's Creek and Milton near metro Atlanta, has been discussed.
"I don't take credit for this being an original thought, but there are people who are proponents of incorporating the Century district," Muggridge said. "And I'll admit that during windshield time when I'm driving, it has entered my mind. That's when you get into the quality-of-life issues that are important to your community.
"Is it something I think about? Yes. Is it on my to-do list? No."
Gregory said the only type of region that would be open to an incorporation effort would be a major growth area like the southern portion of the county, which is home to more than 80 percent of the county's residents.
"It's really the opposite of consolidation," Gregory said. "It's a totally different dynamic."
Crace, as fate would have it, also served in the Sandy Springs government.
"Atlanta always wanted to annex that area, but Sandy Springs was afraid of Atlanta and Fulton County," he said. "It was a 30-year journey for them to get the OK to incorporate because they were always blocked by the Legislature. Once the balance in the Legislature changed from Democrat to Republican, the door opened for them and they made their case."
The bottom line in any dramatic change that might come to Lee County, officials agree, will be driven by a general dissatisfaction in the level of services provided by the county.
"Most people don't really think about things like governments services ... until they need them," Moore said. "That's when they become important.
"I'm sure there are some people in Leesburg and in other parts of the county who would like to see more services and less taxes. But I don't get a feeling that the people here are that dissatisfied. I don't think people are really unhappy."