DALTON, Ga. - A consolidated government has allowed Athens, Ga., and Clarke County to provide a level of service and do projects they could not have done as separate governments, according to their finance director.
John Culpepper, who was finance director before consolidation and during the transition, met Wednesday with the charter commission for Whitfield County and Dalton to talk about the process.
The 15-member charter commission is tasked with studying the possibility of consolidating Whitfield and Dalton and writing a charter for the new government. If recommended by the commission, citizens will vote on the referendum in November 2012.
Culpepper answered dozens of questions from various members of the commission, who asked about financial details and the political process of presenting consolidation to voters. It was the first time the commission heard from an official in a consolidated government.
"Consolidation allowed us to focus not on the needs of the government but on the needs of the community. I think we do a better job of addressing those needs," Culpepper said.
Combining the two governments did not bring substantial savings immediately after the consolidation, but Culpepper said he believes it has saved money over the long term.
Information provided by Culpepper showed that Athens and Clarke County shared more services before consolidated than Dalton and Whitfield do now.
They had one fire department and one school system. They also had a sheriff's department, a county police force and a city police department, with the two police departments combining through consolidation.
"There wasn't a lot of overlap," Culpepper said. "It was more like putting the pieces of a puzzle together."
The cost of consolidation was about $600,000 and took 2 1/2 years to be fully implemented, Culpepper said. The government did not immediately equalize salaries, but waited to see exactly what role an employee would assume in the new government, since many job descriptions changed during the transition, he said.
Athens/Clarke County attempted to consolidate three times over the course of more than 20 years before finally passing the referendum in 1990. The consolidated government is one of seven in Georgia and 37 in the nation.
After the meeting, Whitfield County Commission Chairman and charter commission member Mike Babb said it was good to hear from someone who has gone through the consolidation process.
However, he noted that Athens and Clarke County had a similar level of services prior to consolidation while Whitfield County residents and Dalton residents receive a very different level of services.
Culpepper's information also drove home how difficult the consolidation process is, Babb said.
"There is a reason there are only 37 consolidated governments," he said. "I'm beginning to see it is much harder than I thought it would be. It doesn't mean we shouldn't try, but it is a lot of work."