ALBANY, Ga. — After two citizens asked the Dougherty County Commission Monday to revive consolidation efforts with the city of Albany, County Commission Chairman Jeff Sinyard said he would contact city and state officials to see whether it is possible to have the question placed on the November ballot.
Sinyard is sending the letter on his own, not on behalf of the county.
Charles Westbrook was the first to address the commission and said he was concerned about the high level of property taxes in Dougherty County and that consolidating operations in the city and county would reduce duplication of services and provide some level of cost savings. He asked that commissioners take a handout he provided with self-described facts about consolidation as gleaned from a study conducted in 2004 and statements written by the Carl Vinson Institute of Government at the University of Georgia.
“Here is what is really disturbing: Four on this commission voted not to let the public have a say-so. That’s a major decision to save money, to increase efficiency in our government, and four people voted not to do that, and to not even let the public have a say-so,” Westbrook said. “Here’s what I am asking, that on behalf of the other people in the community who think consolidation ought to be voted on, I’m asking this body ... to take this summary to the appropriate officials with the city and ask them to address it promptly for us.”
Westbrook called on his elected representatives on the commission — Ewell Lyle and Chairman Jeff “Bodine” Sinyard — to send a letter to their counterparts on the city and to the “appropriate officials” to get the measure on the ballot in November.
Tom Mueller, a Presbyterian minister, argued that consolidation was a logical step given the duplication of services in the county. When Commissioner Jack Stone questioned the validity of his statements to the commission, Mueller went so far as to say if Stone didn’t want to let the people vote, then he shouldn’t be re-elected.
“We have higher unemployment than the state and national average, we’re losing population, we’re bleeding industry and I don’t know of any industry that would really consider coming to this area. Albany has the distinction of being one of the poorest cities in the nation. That all calls for some new ways of doing things,” Mueller said. “If Albany is to recapture what it was when we first came in 1972, it’s going to take some new and different ideas, some out-of-the-box thinking, you might say, and this issue of consolidation is one of those.”
Mueller pointed to the various law enforcement agencies in town as examples of wasteful duplication.
“The advantages of consolidation are so obvious,” he said. “There is so much duplication of effort. I mean, how many police departments do we have in Dougherty County? We got the sheriff, we got the county police, we’ve got the city police, Albany State (University) has a police department, Dougherty County Schools have a police department, I presume Darton has a police department. ... Good heavens! That’s ridiculous.”
According to the most recent proposed consolidation charter, only the Albany and Dougherty County Police Departments would merge. The sheriff’s office, which is a constitutionally created office in Georgia, would not be impacted, nor would campus police departments because they are entities of the state, not the county. Also, the Dougherty County Schools Police Department is an arm of the Dougherty County School System and is governed by the superintendent and the School Board of Dougherty County, not the Dougherty County Commission or the city of Albany.
Stone, one of the leading opponents in the move to unify the two local governments, fiercely upheld his conviction that he has an obligation to his constituents to block a referendum because the vote itself would be unfair to the residents of the unincorporated area. He questioned the potential savings the two presented Monday, despite the fact that they said the numbers were pulled from a study group convened by the county to study consolidation years ago.
“Talking about facts, a lot of these right here aren’t facts whatsoever. You and Mr. (Ewel) Lyle both need to check your situation and see where you’re at on it,” Stone said. “No. 1, it would take close to $1 million to bring the county police up to par where the city is now, and if you start off paying $1 million that first year, how are you going to save $300,000? There is no way in this world that that is possible and keep the same service we have now.
“It’s a mathematical impossibility,” Stone said. “It’s just that simple.”
Stone told his colleagues and the citizens present Monday that he would never vote to allow a public vote so long as the voting laws were skewed to allow Albany to impose its will over those in the unincorporated area.
“It’s not right that the people of Albany, whose votes get counted along with those of the unincorporated area, will ultimately get to decide this thing,” Stone said. “Until those elections issues are fixed, I’m not voting for it.”
Under a two-decades-old state law, a community can consolidate its local governments if the majority of the voters in the county vote to do so. To determine this, voters who live in the corporate city limits of the city of Albany will have their votes counted twice — once as residents of the city and once as a part of the countywide vote.
Stone argues that means that however the people of the unincorporated area vote, they’ll likely be overruled by the people within the city.
There has been no talk of Albany-Dougherty consolidation during this session of the General Assembly, which is nearing its crossover day on Wednesday. Generally, legislation from one chamber has to be approved and sent over to the other chamber by that day if its sponsors hope for the bill to pass both houses before adjournment.
Consolidation was last considered in the 2011 General Assembly. After an attempt in the House to place a unification charter before local voters died in the Senate the year before, Sen. Freddie Powell Sims, D-Dawson, said she would bring the issue up in the 2011 Legislature.
That was delayed, however, when Albany and state officials determined that the best course would be to wait until the 2010 census numbers were in and population shifts could be taken into account in establishing single-member voting districts for a consolidated government.
Those numbers are now in, and yet there is silence from Atlanta on the issue.
The latest version of the combined government called for eight commission members elected from single-member districts and a full-time chair elected at-large. That plan also called for the merging of the Albany and Dougherty County police departments, with the chief to be appointed by the combined government’s manager.
District 2 Commissioner John Hayes, who along with Commissioner Gloria Gaines held a series of public forums soliciting input from his constituents on consolidation the last time it was before the board, said Monday that he admired the people’s courage in coming before the board asking for the issue to be revived, but that, as an elected official, he must follow the will of his constituents, who have shown little desire to move the issue forward.
“It’s a very big issue and a very important issue,” Hayes said. “I’m neither an opponent or proponent of consolidation. I think our citizens, certainly those that I represent, have stated their opposition to it. I think that, in any process we’re engaged in, we have to do what those people who have elected us believe we have to carry out. And we’ve done that, whether it’s progressive or regressive.”
Sinyard, who has said repeatedly that he believes the public has a right to decide how they should be governed while keeping his personal feelings on consolidation tight to his chest, reiterated that statement Monday.
“Consolidation is an issue that has been before us now for several years. It’s one that continues to be an issue and people, at some point, want to vote on this,” he said.