Fire service in Albany and Dougherty County is provided throughout the county by the city of Albany, and the county will pay $3,801,674 for its share of the service starting July 1. (Staff photo: Carlton Fletcher)
ALBANY — While it’s not widely known by many in the community, the effort to consolidate the Albany and Dougherty County governments is not a new concept.
As early as the 1970s, a study was conducted to determine if consolidation would save Dougherty and Albany taxpayers money. And while the concept of consolidation was eventually rejected, a series of far-ahead-of-their-time intergovernmental agreements were put into place then that eliminated what was seen as rampant duplication of services.
It would be a quarter-century later, in 1997, that the Georgia Legislature passed HB 489, which required each of the state’s 159 counties to come up with their own plan to eliminate overlapping services.
“It’s pretty incredible that the city and county leaders of that time saw the need for these agreements,” Albany City Manager James Taylor said. “It’s proven to be the reasonable and right thing to do, but what they did was so far ahead of its time.”
Indeed, the intergovernmental agreements put in place in Albany and Dougherty County have, with a bit of tweaking and a few additions, survived the last 40-plus years pretty much intact.
“When you talk about the agreements we have in place, it’s complicated for the average citizen to understand,” Dougherty County Administrator Richard Crowdis said. “Because of the complexities, most citizens tend to look at the bottom line of the legislation, not where it came from.
“But through the progressiveness of the leadership in the city and county, staff and attorneys have put in place agreements that have stood over time.”
The city and county currently have 29 service delivery agreements in place. And while the agreements are the products of extensive work and negotiations conducted by Albany and Dougherty County staff and eventually approved by the commission of each, the concept can be stated in relatively simple terms.
The two governments determine ways that they can best deliver services to the citizens of the city and county at the lowest possible cost. They then determine which government will be primarily responsible for those services. Once that is determined, Albany and Dougherty County staff determine an equitable payment that the entity not responsible for the service will pay to receive the service.
For example, the city of Albany is responsible for providing fire protection throughout the county. The county’s share of that protection, which most recently was determined by an independent Carl Vinson Institute of Government study, will be, starting July 1, $3,801,674 annually for the next five years. At the end of that time, city and county staff will negotiate a new equitable agreement.
“Our fire department is a perfect example of how our system of intergovernmental agreements works,” Ward I Albany City Commissioner Jon Howard said. “The city provides the service, and the county pays their share based on usage. Of course, there was a bit of inequity, the city feels, over the last five years of the agreement, but that has been addressed with the Carl Vinson study.
“We try to be mutual friends during these discussions and do what’s best for the city and county. We are, after all, serving the same constituents.”
According to information provided by county and city Finance officials — Dougherty County Finance Director Martha Hendley, Albany COO JoEllen Brophy and city interim Deputy Finance Director Derrick Brown — and taken from the Department of Community Affairs website, the city/county agreements include:
Airport — City is solely responsible for operating costs and receives all revenues generated.
Albany-Dougherty Drug Unit — Jointly operated, with the county financing through $885,856 from its general fund and the city paying $143,712 of that cost.
Animal Control — Each entity provides its own service.
E-911 Service — City provides the service, and the county pays an $84,204 share.
Economic Development Commission — The city and county contribute equally to the commission: $250,000.
Emergency Management Service — City provides the service, county pays $58,525.
Emergency Medical Services — The county provides the service and receives all revenues generated.
Facilities Management — The county operates at a cost of $2,190,581. The city pays a $457,323 share.
Information Technology —The city provides the service, and the county pays an average $735,901 share.
Jail Services — The county budgets $13,185,318 for jail services, and the city’s average share is between $300,000 and $380,000.
Keep Albany-Dougherty Beautiful — Funding ($172,200) is paid through the county’s Solid Waste Enterprise Fund.
Library Services —The county manages the library system with a $2,178,763 budget.
Occupation Tax, Assessment and License Collection —The city maintains the service and keeps administrative fees collected for county assessments.
Planning and Development Services — The city maintains, and the cost is shared with the city paying 73 percent of costs and the county 27 percent. The county pays $346,200 from its Special Services District budget.
Police Protection — Each entity has its own police department and funds it.
Procurement — The city originally provided the service, but now the county does its own procurement.
Recreation — The city provides the service, and the county will start paying $180,700 on July 1. That agreement was reached through a separate Carl Vinson study.
Sewer Service — The city Public Works department provides the service.
Solid Waste Service: Disposal and Collection — The city is responsible for solid waste collection, while the county is responsible for disposal at its landfill. The Dougherty County Solid Waste Enterprise Fund has a budget of $3,097,883.
Storm Drainage — The city and county jointly provide storm drainage with each responsible for specific facilities.
Tax Collections —The county provides tax collection service at a budgeted cost of $2,037,099, and the city pays $304,416 for the service.
Traffic Engineering — The city provides the service and receives an average of between $17,770 and $23,000 from the county.
Transportation — The city and county provide the service jointly, with each responsible for its own public transportation.
Water Service — The city provides through its Water, Gas & Light Commission.
Water and Sewer Rate — The city provides the service through WG&L.
Agreements put in place since 2006 include:
311 Call Center — The city provides the service, and the county pays $60,000.
Code Enforcement — The city provides the service, and the county pays between $46,800 and $57,276 through its Special Services District budget.
SWAT — The city provides the service through its police department, and the county contributes $2,076.
Even with the agreements in place, there are officials like District 4 County Commissioner Ewell Lyle who insist consolidation should remain on the table as a viable option.
“We still have two commissions, two police departments, two Human Resources departments, two Finance departments,” Lyle, who is running for re-election, said. “And, while I’ll say there is no better fire chief than Chief (James) Carswell and no better department, you still have to consider that the county’s share of fire costs go up every time they add new services or equipment. It’s like being a tenant in an apartment building: Everything added makes your rent go up.
“And when you look at the time it takes to work on all these agreements and the issues like the local-option sales tax discussions that went on to the 11th hour last year, the whole saga is indicative of how consolidation would solve a lot of our problems.”
Taylor, however, said consolidation proponents are not looking at hidden costs.
“You might cut out a management level, for instance, if you combine the city and county police departments, but there will be manpower and incidental costs — How can you have a unified force with different uniforms, for instance? — that have to be considered,” the city manager said. “And if you put all employees under one system, you’ve got a pay inequity that must be addressed.
“You can’t equalize pay by lowering salaries. You’d have to pay significant salary increases to bring your employees to an equal salary. I’m not saying these things can’t be done, but they bring challenges with them.”
During the recent LOST negotiations mentioned by Lyle, several city commissioners, angered that they’d been essentially forced to accept an agreement that was considerably less than they’d sought, offered a rallying cry of, “Remember this when we negotiate the new intergovernmental agreements.”
Crowdis said, however, there has been no ill will between city and county staffs as they’ve worked to get new agreements (with the exception of the fire and recreation agreements) in place by June 30, 2016.
“I think what we’ll have is the same thing we’ve always had: as fair and equitable agreements as we can come up with,” Crowdis said. “That’s always been the case in Albany and Dougherty County.”
Added Taylor: “Of course, I’m going to work with the county folks to make this as fair as possible. It’s the right thing to do, and while Richard and I may be co-workers, we’re also friends. That makes things easier.”