October 1, 1995 in Nation/World

Two Communities Offer Case Studies In Consolidation Kentucky, Georgia Voters Test The Unknown, Get Mixed Results

By The Spokesman-Review
 

Twenty-three years ago, this community in the center of horse country joined a group more elite than Derby winners.

Its residents voted to abolish their City Council and Fayette County Commission, creating a new government to replace the two.

It was a step only 12 American communities had taken before Lexington. It is a step only eight other communities have taken since Lexington’s merger and a move Spokane voters will consider Nov. 7.

Consolidation has been considered and rejected by more than 50 communities since World War II.

In Lexington, consolidation is almost universally accepted, and residents wonder why they’re unique. They cite better land-use planning, better police and fire departments, and a better economy as the payoffs.

“It’s hard to imagine what it would be like today, if we had to go back and undo (the merger),” said Frank Mattone, a developer and former Lexington-Fayette County planning director.

Two states south of Lexington, in the flat, lush Georgia heartland, Athens residents are living through the turmoil of turning two governments into one.

Residents voted in 1990 to merge the city and Clarke County. Five years later, it’s not clear whether they would make the same decision again.

“Absolutely,” said Tal DuVall, an Athens-Clarke County commissioner. “Consolidation will be the way to go all over the country. Politics will not drive it; economics will.”

“No way,” said Ron Evans, a neighborhood activist who complains he pays more and gets less from the new government.

“If centralized government was a good idea, Russia would be in great shape right now.”

The two communities are case studies for Spokane, where proponents argue consolidation would make government more effective, more efficient and more responsive. Foes warn it would mean higher taxes and more bureaucracy.

Both sides could support their claims in Athens and Lexington. But such conclusions often are misleading, and firm answers are elusive.

‘Shell games’ in Athens

Pride caps the Athens City Hall - now headquarters for the merged government - as firmly as the building’s copper dome.

Gwen O’Looney, the high-energy mayor, boasts the community is investing in failing neighborhoods and buying land for nature trails along the Oconee River.

“I have a friend who’s lived in San Francisco and Seattle, and she said she’d never seen a recycling system like the one we have here,” said O’Looney. “We can even throw away rags” to be recycled.

Once-vacant downtown buildings are filling with funky shops suitable for the hometown of the University of Georgia, the rock band R.E.M. and some 1996 Olympic competitions. New businesses arrived, encouraged by a streamlined permitting process.

“We just got a factory from Israel to locate here,” said Dennis Greenia, editor of The Flagpole, a weekly newspaper with a liberal bent. “It’s a little factory that makes antennas for television stations.”

None of the progress would be possible without consolidation, say proponents, who range from conservative business groups to the liberal mayor. The city and the county were too busy bickering to plan ahead, court new employers or apply for state and federal money.

Improvements came as property taxes fell, said O’Looney.

In 1990, the owner of a $100,000 house paid $758 to the city or $606 to the county. Now, the tax is $478, no matter where the house stands.

“It’s a shell game,” sniffed Evans, the neighborhood activist.

The figures, which O’Looney touted in her 1994 re-election campaign, don’t show that assessments on many houses doubled in 1991, when the Georgia Legislature demanded that tax rolls reflect a property’s true value.

So, while the government is charging less for every dollar of property value, most homeowners pay higher taxes.

And the merged government bills separately for some services the city paid for with property taxes. Garbage collection costs Evans $156 more a year; 911 service costs him $18.

Those costs aren’t included in O’Looney’s “before and after” comparisons.

Merger supporters contend the new government is blamed for increases beyond its control. Garbage rates increased because the old dump was replaced with a state-of-the-art landfill, O’Looney noted.

Not that the merger was free. Payroll increased more than $2 million because county workers got raises to match the pay of former city workers. New police uniforms cost $60,000 and new personnel manuals cost nearly $10,000.

But new businesses contribute jobs and taxes to the community. There are other financial benefits as well.

“There have been millions and millions of dollars in grants from the federal and state governments that we wouldn’t have gotten without the merger,” said Greenia.

Money from the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development rose 70 percent, to $1.13 million, annually. The amount is based on population within the metropolitan area, which now includes the entire county, instead of just the city.

Larry Blount, a member of a citizens committee reviewing the merger, said there’s no way to tell whether government is more expensive now than it would be if the city and county hadn’t joined. But he doubts it.

“(Tax increases) are something that’s going on everywhere,” he said.

Leaves piling up

There’s no question some services have suffered in the former metropolitan area of Athens, while rural services improved.

Crews used to pick up leaves and other yard debris from city neighborhoods every other week. Now, the same number of workers groom the whole county, every other month.

That’s a big issue in a community forested with century-old pecan, walnut and ash trees. Leaves and limbs litter some sidewalks.

“It (the merger) was sold in the newspapers and on radio as more services for less cost,” said Evans, whose yard is canopied by five pecan trees with trunks as big as garbage cans.

DuVall said leaves will be collected more frequently as soon as the new government can afford it.

“We’re fully committed to restoring that service,” he said.

Horse lovers happy in Lexington

The pursuit of knowledge made Lexington. Transylvania University was founded here in 1780 and has such notable alumni as Jefferson Davis, the president of the Confederacy. The University of Kentucky opened the year the Civil War ended, and now has 24,000 students.

But horses made the region famous. In less than 12 minutes, a chamber of commerce executive boasts, a downtown worker can leave the office and drive to a horse farm.

The commute would be longer if not for the city-county merger.

Lexington and Fayette County officials agreed in the 1950s to draw a boundary separating urban and rural areas.

Inside the line, the government built sewers and encouraged commercial and residential development. Outside, the smallest allowable lot was 10 acres.

Before the merger, tax-hungry county officials frequently approved subdivisions outside the boundaries, said Mattone. Some of those subdivisions still don’t have sewers.

Mattone and many others believe the agreement eventually would have crumbled entirely.

“It would have been impossible to maintain the quality of development without the merger, without cooperation,” Mattone said.

Stiff zoning regulations mean land for development is scarce. Housing prices rose 7 percent last year, and commercial property has increased even more, said Steve Byars, president of the economic development group Lexington United.

“Supply and demand of land is a little out of whack,” said Byars, who wants the line adjusted, but not abandoned.

“Even developers can see that the attraction of this area is that it’s the thoroughbred breeding capital of the world,” Byars said. “That green space is our identity.”

The lesson for Spokane

Lexington’s farms and Athens’ trees have everything to do with Spokane, when taken in the context of next month’s vote.

Clearly, in Lexington, unification meant more logical use of land.

Since the city and county don’t compete for property taxes, development is directed where it makes the most sense, environmentally and economically.

In Spokane, squabbles between the city and the county have tainted land-use decisions in places like Five Mile Prairie and the South Hill, where county development clogs city streets.

Spokane city and county officials wrestle each other for state money to pay for sewers. They will wrestle more when it’s time to draw urban growth boundaries required under Washington state’s Growth Management Act.

Consolidation could end that bickering, but it won’t come without cost - especially if city services are preserved while county services are improved.

“I don’t know how they’re trying to sell unification up there, whether they’re trying to say, ‘More services for less cost’… but it’s been pretty much the opposite here,” said Evans.

Even the most giddy proponents acknowledge that the new government likely would impose a utility tax in the Spokane Valley and other urban areas where it’s never been used before.

One consultant predicted the annual tax increase at $20 million, a figure proponents say is off the mark.

Whatever extra is collected, proponents say it will provide more police, better street repair and other services in the areas where taxes increase.

Long-term savings?

Folks in the areas surrounding Lexington and Athens can testify improvements have come.

They’d also testify that some of their money is used for downtown projects, like Lexington’s $35-million convention center. Under one government, that transfer of money is as natural as using taxes from the South Hill to help pay for road work on the North Side.

No doubt Spokane’s cost of government would increase in the short run, just as it did in Athens and Lexington.

The charter promises that rank-and-file employees will not lose their jobs or take pay cuts. In fact, many county workers would get raises, since they earn less than equivalent city workers.

Savings, say proponents, would come in the long run, through efficiencies of scale and a gradual reduction of the work force.

“In theory, if you eliminate duplications of services, you’ll cut costs,” said Len Davis, one of eight Athens businessmen who gather mornings at Shoney’s Restaurant to complain about lousy football, liberal Democrats and big government.

The men were especially critical of the Athens-Clarke County government and of local tax increases.

Still, five of the eight raised their hands when asked who would support the merger again.

“Most of us think it’s going to work out eventually,” said Davis.

, DataTimes ILLUSTRATION: 2 Photos; 2 Maps: Louisville, Ky. area; Athens, Ga. area

MEMO: These 3 sidebars appeared with the story:

1. YOU JUST HAVE TO ASK

Have a question about the proposed merger of Spokane’s city and county governments? We’d like to answer it before the Nov. 7 election. Call Cityline, 458-8800, on a Touch-Tone telephone, press 9865 and ask the question.

Cityline is free, but normal long-distance tolls to Spokane apply.

2. LEXINGTON/FAYETTE COUNTY, KY

POPULATION: 233,000

RANK: Second largest in Kentucky.

LAND AREA: 280 square miles.

DEMOGRAPHICS: 85 percent white; 13 percent black; 2 percent Native American and other.

DATE OF MERGER: Approved 1972; effective Jan. 1, 1974.

VOTE: 69 percent yes.

PREVIOUS ATTEMPTS: None.

ISSUES: Government efficiency, better cooperation, public safety.

FORM OF GOVERNMENT: Strong mayor.

The center of Kentucky’s bluegrass region… Surrounded by sprawling horse farms and small tobacco fields…Home to the University of Kentucky (24,000 enrollment)… UK is the largest employer, followed by Toyota, which has a plant just outside the county, and Lexmark, a computer component maker … Hard hit by recession in the early 1990s, when it lost big downtown retailers … Recovering slowly, helped by government investments like a $35 million convention center… Population grew more than 10 percent in the 1980s … Trend continues. Housing costs increased 7 percent in 1994… About 14 percent of residents live in poverty, roughly equal to Spokane.

BENEFITS OF CONSOLIDATION

Little urban sprawl. An urban service boundary marks transition between urban areas, where sewers are constructed, and rural areas, where the minimum lot size is 10 acres.

Public safety. Rural residents were served by poorly trained police and fire departments prior to the merger. Merger caused fire insurance premiums to drop for some residents.

More efficient government. For instance, the two public works departments had 600 employees before the merger. Ten years later, the combined workforce was 400.

Stronger voice in the state Legislature and in recruiting businesses.

DRAWBACKS OF CONSOLIDATION

Local income tax doubled, from 1 percent to 2 percent, for rural residents, to match tax paid by city residents.

Payroll soared as city and county wages were equalized.

Some poorly trained county police officers became supervisors over better-trained city officers.

Many developers say the urban service boundary should be expanded, a lengthy process under the merged government.

3. ATHENS/CLARKE COUNTY, GA

POPULATION: 88,000

RANK: 14th in Georgia.

LAND AREA: 116 square miles, the smallest of state’s 156 counties.

DEMOGRAPHICS: 70 percent white; 26 percent black; 4 percent Asian and other.

DATE OF MERGER: Approved in 1990; effective Jan. 14, 1991.

VOTE: 60 percent yes.

PREVIOUS ATTEMPTS: 1969, 1972 and 1982.

ISSUES: Government efficiency; better services; more cooperation.

FORM OF GOVERNMENT: Mix of strong mayor and council-manager.

Located 65 miles east of Atlanta… Home to University of Georgia (28,500 enrollment). Host for volleyball, soccer and rhythmic gymnastics during 1996 Olympics … White-collar neighborhoods nearest downtown have streets lined with pecan and other hardwood trees and are dotted with 19th century mansions. Neighborhoods on the edge of town are declining… Two entrances to the Athens movie theater is evidence of past segregation… Twenty-seven percent of population lives in poverty. Population grew 17 percent in 1980s…Still growing… University is the largest employer, followed by Seaboard Farms and Gold Kist Inc.

BENEFITS OF CONSOLIDATION

Residents outside the former city pay lower water and sewer rates and get better services than in the past, including street sweeping, leaf pickup and garbage collection.

Better at attracting new businesses, with a one-stop permit center and fast-track licensing for non-polluting industries.

Federal money for local projects increased 70 percent the year after consolidation.

Better land-use planning.

DRAWBACKS OF CONSOLIDATION

City services suffer as resources are stretched countywide. Yard debris is collected once every two months, rather than twice a month.

City residents pay more for water and sewer because they no longer are subsidized by customers in the county.

Merger caused hard feelings among government employees, although no jobs were lost.

Officers from the former county police department continued making less than those from the city until this year. Some supervisors earned less than subordinates.

Annual payroll increased $2.23 million.

Hybrid form of government creates confusion about who’s in charge, the mayor or the manager.

These 3 sidebars appeared with the story: 1. YOU JUST HAVE TO ASK Have a question about the proposed merger of Spokane’s city and county governments? We’d like to answer it before the Nov. 7 election. Call Cityline, 458-8800, on a Touch-Tone telephone, press 9865 and ask the question. Cityline is free, but normal long-distance tolls to Spokane apply.

2. LEXINGTON/FAYETTE COUNTY, KY POPULATION: 233,000 RANK: Second largest in Kentucky. LAND AREA: 280 square miles. DEMOGRAPHICS: 85 percent white; 13 percent black; 2 percent Native American and other. DATE OF MERGER: Approved 1972; effective Jan. 1, 1974. VOTE: 69 percent yes. PREVIOUS ATTEMPTS: None. ISSUES: Government efficiency, better cooperation, public safety. FORM OF GOVERNMENT: Strong mayor. The center of Kentucky’s bluegrass region… Surrounded by sprawling horse farms and small tobacco fields…Home to the University of Kentucky (24,000 enrollment)… UK is the largest employer, followed by Toyota, which has a plant just outside the county, and Lexmark, a computer component maker … Hard hit by recession in the early 1990s, when it lost big downtown retailers … Recovering slowly, helped by government investments like a $35 million convention center… Population grew more than 10 percent in the 1980s … Trend continues. Housing costs increased 7 percent in 1994… About 14 percent of residents live in poverty, roughly equal to Spokane. BENEFITS OF CONSOLIDATION Little urban sprawl. An urban service boundary marks transition between urban areas, where sewers are constructed, and rural areas, where the minimum lot size is 10 acres. Public safety. Rural residents were served by poorly trained police and fire departments prior to the merger. Merger caused fire insurance premiums to drop for some residents. More efficient government. For instance, the two public works departments had 600 employees before the merger. Ten years later, the combined workforce was 400. Stronger voice in the state Legislature and in recruiting businesses. DRAWBACKS OF CONSOLIDATION Local income tax doubled, from 1 percent to 2 percent, for rural residents, to match tax paid by city residents. Payroll soared as city and county wages were equalized. Some poorly trained county police officers became supervisors over better-trained city officers. Many developers say the urban service boundary should be expanded, a lengthy process under the merged government.

3. ATHENS/CLARKE COUNTY, GA POPULATION: 88,000 RANK: 14th in Georgia. LAND AREA: 116 square miles, the smallest of state’s 156 counties. DEMOGRAPHICS: 70 percent white; 26 percent black; 4 percent Asian and other. DATE OF MERGER: Approved in 1990; effective Jan. 14, 1991. VOTE: 60 percent yes. PREVIOUS ATTEMPTS: 1969, 1972 and 1982. ISSUES: Government efficiency; better services; more cooperation. FORM OF GOVERNMENT: Mix of strong mayor and council-manager. Located 65 miles east of Atlanta… Home to University of Georgia (28,500 enrollment). Host for volleyball, soccer and rhythmic gymnastics during 1996 Olympics … White-collar neighborhoods nearest downtown have streets lined with pecan and other hardwood trees and are dotted with 19th century mansions. Neighborhoods on the edge of town are declining… Two entrances to the Athens movie theater is evidence of past segregation… Twenty-seven percent of population lives in poverty. Population grew 17 percent in 1980s…Still growing… University is the largest employer, followed by Seaboard Farms and Gold Kist Inc. BENEFITS OF CONSOLIDATION Residents outside the former city pay lower water and sewer rates and get better services than in the past, including street sweeping, leaf pickup and garbage collection. Better at attracting new businesses, with a one-stop permit center and fast-track licensing for non-polluting industries. Federal money for local projects increased 70 percent the year after consolidation. Better land-use planning. DRAWBACKS OF CONSOLIDATION City services suffer as resources are stretched countywide. Yard debris is collected once every two months, rather than twice a month. City residents pay more for water and sewer because they no longer are subsidized by customers in the county. Merger caused hard feelings among government employees, although no jobs were lost. Officers from the former county police department continued making less than those from the city until this year. Some supervisors earned less than subordinates. Annual payroll increased $2.23 million. Hybrid form of government creates confusion about who’s in charge, the mayor or the manager.

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