ATHENS, Ga. -- Whitfield County and Dalton leaders agreed Saturday to work toward holding a public vote on consolidating government in November 2012.
At a planning retreat in Athens, city and county leaders voted unanimously to ask state legislators to approve creation of a charter commission.
Both governments plan to vote on a resolution about proposed legislation in less than two weeks and hope to have a consolidation referendum on the ballot in November 2012.
The City Council, County Commission, the Dalton mayor, city and county administrators and two members of the Chamber of Commerce attended the meetings led by governmental services staff from the Carl Vinson Institute of Government at the University of Georgia.
Dalton Mayor David Pennington, who has been a strong proponent for unified government, called the results of the retreat "very positive."
"We want to do what is best for all the citizens of Dalton and Whitfield County," Pennington said.
The two governments already have some merged departments, including building inspections and zoning. Leaders also have discussed merging fire departments.
Merging governments can happen in different ways, governmental services staff told the group. A wide-ranging discussion took place before leaders hammered out a final plan approved by everyone.
If approved by state lawmakers, the 15-member charter commission will be made up of two members each from the council and commission, one representative each from the other three incorporated towns, and four residents each appointed by the City Council and County Commission.
The charter commission will be charged with studying issues important to consolidation and writing a charter for the consolidated government.
Leaders hope the charter commission can be approved this legislative session and start work in the spring and summer.
The final step before the issue goes to vote in a referendum is getting approval from the U.S. Justice Department. Governmental services staff said, given the demographics of Whitfield and Dalton, they did not expect that would be a problem.
City and county leaders say they believe consolidation would offer streamlined services for residents and the possibility of lower costs leading to lower tax rates.
A UGA study of five consolidated governments in Georgia 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.
The group also discussed potential problems to consolidation, including differing pension plans and pay scales and paying off current debts under a new government.
Governmental services staff member Betty Hudson said Dalton is the first city with a municipal electric utility to consider consolidation. The question would be how revenue from Dalton Utilities would be used in the consolidated government, Hudson said.
A recurring concern during the two days was the two schools systems. Many leaders at the retreat said the schools should cut costs and consider consolidation, but they are not required to do so.
"My hope is that consolidation will be the train that pulls them along where they need to go," County Chairman Mike Babb said. "There will be plenty of pressure on them."
Both Pennington and Babb said they will not push consolidation on the residents but are allowing the people to decide what form of government they want.
"The only way this is a failure is if it doesn't go to a vote," Pennington said. "We want the people to tell us what they want."
Contact staff writer Mariann Martin at firstname.lastname@example.org or 706-980-5824.