published Saturday, February 12th, 2011

Dalton, Whitfield talk merger at retreat

ATHENS, Ga. -- The road to a consolidated government isn't a clear-cut route and has to be determined by unique issues in the community, University of Georgia governmental researchers told Whitfield County and Dalton city leaders.

Their presentation Friday covered previous consolidation efforts in Georgia, the pros and cons of consolidation and steps to take in joining governments.

"Local governments have a lot of options to provide for a lot of things unique to the community," Betty Hudson told leaders during the first day of a two-day planning retreat here. "Be aware of what the issues are and deal with them."

The Dalton City Council, Whitfield County Commission, the Dalton mayor, city and county administrators and two members of the Chamber of Commerce attended the meeting as the first step in deciding whether to move ahead with consolidation.

Whitfield County and Dalton already have some merged departments, including building inspections and zoning. Leaders also have discussed merging fire departments.

But the primary topic on the table Friday was complete consolidation of Whitfield County and Dalton city governments, a move that would require a voter referendum.

Smaller towns within Whitfield -- Cohutta, Tunnel Hill and Varnell -- could vote in the referendum or simply decide not to take part and remain incorporated towns.

Georgia has seven consolidated governments, the largest number of any state. Many required multiple referendums before they passed.

Dalton Mayor David Pennington said Athens and Clarke County is the government he is most interested in, because it compares in size and population to Whitfield County and Dalton.

When Pennington began asking questions about how that merger had worked and for statistical data, Hudson said she did not have that information available.

Pennington also expressed interest in one table that showed millage rates dropped an average of 27 percent in the cities and almost 5 percent in the counties the first full year after consolidation.

"I can tell what citizens vote on first and that is the money coming out of their pocket," Pennington said.

The question of the separate Dalton and Whitfield school systems -- which would not automatically be required to merge -- came up repeatedly.

"The schools haven't made painful cuts at the top like we all have," City Councilwoman Denise Wood said. "It is frustrating -- our two school systems need to cut bloated administration staff."

If the city and county decide to move ahead with consolidation, the process likely will take at least a year and would require completing an issue assessment, writing a charter and getting approval from the U.S. Department of Justice before it goes to a vote.

The group will meet again today to discuss a process and timetable.

Contact staff writer Mariann Martin at mmartin@timesfreepress.com or 706-980-5824.

about Mariann Martin...

Mariann Martin covers healthcare in Chattanooga and the surrounding region. She joined the Times Free Press in February 2011, after covering crime and courts for the Jackson (Tenn.) Sun for two years. Mariann was born in Indiana, but grew up in Pennsylvania, Tennessee and Belize. She graduated from Union University in 2005 with degrees in English and history and has master’s degrees in international relations and history from the University of Toronto. While attending Union, ...

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