published Thursday, December 15th, 2011

Dalton Utilities called obstacle to metro government merger plans

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DALTON, Ga. -- Dalton Utilities -- and what to do with it -- is one of the key obstacles when it comes to the proposed merger of Dalton and Whitfield County, a report says.

County Commission Chairman Mike Babb called the utility company "the big gorilla in the room" that would have to be resolved before the merger process could move forward.

On Wednesday, the University of Georgia's Carl Vinson Institute provided a 57-page draft report to the members of the charter commission that has been examining the logistics of merging the two governments.

The institute, which received $19,500 from the charter commission, did not provide any specific recommendations on the pros or cons of the merger. Instead, the report provides information on several consolidated governments in Georgia and on departments in the county and city.

After the meeting, Babb said he has not had the time to study the draft report.

"A lot of the information is on things we knew would be a problem," he said. "I don't think we've really resolved those issues yet."

Nearly one-third of the report is devoted to Dalton Utilities, a city-owned utility that contributes about $9 million a year to city finances. The study noted that officials are considering two options for the utility company -- that it would be owned by the consolidated government or that it would become an independent utility authority.

"Ultimately the future role and function of Dalton Utilities in a consolidated city/county government would be as specified in the new charter," the report states. "The citizens of the City of Dalton may take issue with [the concept of transferring all the assets functions and services of Dalton Utilities to the consolidated government. They could argue that these assets were paid for by Dalton citizens and that the residents of unincorporated Whitfield County should not be so unjustly enriched."

Making the utility a part of the consolidated government would allow for full-service delivery, fiscal resources and ease of implementation, the report notes. On the negative side, it would be under the influence of political leaders and might limit the future growth of the utility.

"We will need to take some time and consideration to consider what all the legalities are," Babb said about the utility. "I think those details have to be clear in the charters."

For the report, institute officials interviewed members of eight departments in Dalton and Whitfield County and looked at how those departments might be consolidated. The report specifically looks at law enforcement, parks and recreation, public works, building inspection and enforcement, the clerk's offices, the finance department and human resources.

Some of the departments were similar and could be consolidated more easily, while other did not overlap on many areas, the report found.

The charter commission has given themselves until early next spring to write a charter. The referendum will then need to be placed on the ballot in November.

"All this is for naught if the voters don't vote for it and we've got to walk ourselves through the whole process to make sure it will be clear to the voters," Babb said. "If the comfort level isn't there, they won't vote for it."

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