February 21, 2006
One county, one government. The struggle for consolidation in Columbia County comes to an end for now. State lawmakers will keep consolidation off the ballot this November. A united government could mean more money and services for the county coming from fees added to utility bills. But now the county has to find a way to make up for the half a million dollars they were counting on.
It's the topic that brought on months of debate. Commissioner Steve Brown says lawmakers did not approve it for this year's ballot because they didn't have all the information.
"I don't recall seeing any legislators at any of our county meetings," he said.
State Representative Barry Fleming agrees he didn't have enough information, but he argues it's because commissioners never gave it to him.
"We gave them several questions to answer, and they have never gotten back to us about it."
He has questions about possible changes to the sheriff's office, how franchise fees would affect people long-term, and whether a unified government would offer public transit.
"We've already answered that question," said Brown, who also has some questions of his own.
Fleming represents Harlem and also serves as its attorney. In documents dating back to last November, Brown finds Fleming earned thousands in legal fees from the city. The commissioner says, for Representative Flemming to get payment from Harlem, could be a conflict of interest. Harlem is known to oppose consolidation.
"Not letting this go forward, not really addressing why we're not able to vote on this in November, is a concern of mine," said Brown.
Fleming says it's not a conflict of interest. He argues it's not uncommon for state lawmakers to serve as city attorneys for parts of their districts. And he's just looking out for what most people in his rural district want.
"I don't think people in those areas are in favor of consolidation. So far, it's the way its been presenter," he said.
Either way, the consolidation deal is off. Commissioner Brown says this is not over, and they'll probably try it again next year.
Columbia County was hoping to become the fourth consolidated government in Georgia. In addition to Augusta-Richmond, Athens-Clarke and Columbus Muscogee are the other two.