OPINION: Consolidation or complication?

Bill Crane's Opinion Piece for Champion newspaper

Jacksonville/Duvall County, Fla. consolidated into one government, across the largest land mass of any county on the eastern seaboard in 1968. At that time, Brunswick and Glynn County also had a former Navy shipyard and port, as well as a manufacturing jobs base. By the census of 1970, the population of Jacksonville/Duvall was 528,865 and Brunswick/Glynn County had a population of 50,528. Combined with Savannah/Chatham County (187,767), the population at that time, across a similar sized land-mass, with adjacent barrier islands would have been roughly half of Jacksonville/Duvall’s at 250,000 (not including Darien/McIntosh County).

Forty years later, the population of Savannah/Chatham County has increased by fewer than 100,000, and Brunswick/Glynn has gained fewer than 30,000. Conversely, consolidated Jacksonville/Duvall, including the Jacksonville Beach communities has surged to 864,263.

These coastal communities share much in common. Savannah is arguably experiencing a renaissance, as well as a tourism surge. And while St. Simons, Sea Island and Georgia’s other Golden Isles may offer some of the most beautiful residences and scenery in the southeast, the consolidated coastal county to our south has practically doubled its population. What is the dominant difference in these two regions? Jacksonville/Duvall has a leaner, consolidated governance structure that provides the majority of government services across 875 square miles of Florida’s north coast.

Some of these consolidation structural benefits include:

Strong mayor-council governance model—The consolidated government charter establishes a strong mayor model, with the 19-member commission serving as the legislative branch of government. Decision-making across the region is as a result more concentrated and a bit less prone to local political skirmishes.

Office of General Counsel—In Jacksonville/Duvall, the Office of General Counsel operates like a private law firm, serving the public clients and agencies of the consolidated government, as well as the Duvall County School system and several quasi-public authorities. With 39 lawyers, the firm is one of the largest and most diverse in Duvall County, and bills government clients on a detailed hourly basis, as would be the case with a private law firm, but again at less cost.

In Georgia, Athens/Clarke County, Augusta/Richmond County, Columbus/Muscogee County and Macon/Bibb County all have consolidated the primary agencies of local government. School systems continue to be run separately and several of these counties maintain both a police department and office of sheriff, with separate responsibilities, and dual law enforcement authority.

Consolidation, in most every case, reduces the layers, duplication and costs of governments. There are trends, in the opposite direction, in metro Atlanta and elsewhere, where affluent suburbs and communities feeling not well- or under-served by larger county governments have instead created new municipalities. These new cities are closer to the taxpayers they serve, and an argument can be made that services improve, but primarily these decisions are more about local control than they are about cost.

In Brunswick and Glynn County, conversations linger about St. Simons Island becoming its own municipality. A city of St. Simons might afford island residents more control over local zoning decisions, but this new layer of government would not come without costs and additional complications. Perhaps a logical place to start the broader dialogue could be with the consolidation of law enforcement services, merging the Brunswick and Glynn County Police Departments into the Glynn County Sheriff’s Office.

The sheriff already maintains the jail, courthouse security and is, by state constitution, the chief law enforcement officer in the county.

New industry and employers, as well as established enterprises considering expansion, review their costs of capital prior to making investment decisions. Income taxes in Georgia, higher property taxes and multiple layers of government are generally not a winning formula for the long term. The question to consider for residents and voters is the benefits of control and complication, versus consolidation and centralized decision making.

We only have to look to northern states, with many facing bankruptcy due to the ever burgeoning costs of retirement/pension and lifetime health care obligations for thousands of city, county and state government employees. In New York state, there are additionally villages, townships and other government entities totaling more than 3,400 active local governments with 4,200 separate taxing jurisdictions.  

Subdivide or combine and right-size? Emotions and community pride as well as local neighborhood control may often cloud the logic of these discussions, but it takes little more than looking directly to our north, south, east and west to see that the smarter business decision is abundantly clear.

 

Bill Crane also serves as a political analyst and commentator for Channel 2’s Action News, WSB-AM News/Talk 750 and now 95.5 FM, as well as a columnist for The Champion, DeKalb Free Press and Georgia Trend. Crane is a DeKalb native and business owner, living in Scottdale. You can reach him or comment on a column at bill.csicrane@gmail.com.

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