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Berdine Dennard Berdine's Corner
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Kenney Dennard Publisher

Ellington Will Not Be Supporting Consolidation

by Tom Ellington

As I announced recently, I will not be supporting the consolidation proposal on the July 31 ballot.

I came to this decision after a great deal of thought and study because I see two very significant flaws in the design of the proposed consolidated government. It is designed for deadlock, and it assumes savings rather than creating them.

The first major flaw comes with the budgeting process. Section 26 of the new charter would require a two-thirds majority to pass a budget. This is a very unusual (if not unique) requirement for a local government -- as well as a dangerous one.

Georgia law requires all local governments to have a balanced budget passed by the beginning of the fiscal year. Without a budget, governments are essentially prohibited from operating. The new charter would allow just four commissioners to bring local government to a halt. They could also demand radical changes to a budget as a condition of passing it. Section 26 subverts the principle of majority rule. As Alexander Hamilton wrote in Federalist No. 22, "To give a minority a negative upon the majority (which is always the case where more than a majority is requisite to a decision), is, in its tendency, to subject the sense of the greater number to that of the lesser."

The second major flaw is found in Section 23, which requires that the budget of the new government be cut by 5 percent a year for a grand total of 20 percent over four years. The idea that cuts of that magnitude are possible or desirable is pure fantasy -- and the more realistic members of our legislative delegation have said as much, stating flatly that they don't expect to see that level of savings.

There is no enforcement mechanism set up for this requirement, but that doesn't mean it would not be enforced. In a Feb. 29 Telegraph story, Sen. Cecil Staton raised the possibility of a lawsuit to compel greater cuts if the commission failed to reach the goals specified in the charter. We have no way of knowing whether a court would actually hear such a suit or how it would rule, but Staton's comments raise the chilling possibility of a judge ordering cuts to essential services.

For the current fiscal year, the combined budgets of Macon and Bibb County are about $155 million, meaning that a 20 percent cut would require finding savings of a little more than $31 million. A little more than 47 percent of that budget goes to public safety. Consolidation would bring no savings to the Fire Department or the Emergency Management Agency, as those are already consolidated, countywide services. Some savings would be possible in law enforcement, with the elimination of the police chief position and a few ancillary positions that are duplicated across the Police and Sheriff’s Departments. Being very optimistic, it might be possible to cut $1 million or $2 million out of law enforcement, but we would not want to cut any deeper, because we will still have a significant need for officers on the street.

That would leave the $81 million of the combined general funds to absorb close to $30 million in cuts. There is simply no way to do that without massive layoffs and reductions in services. Any attempt to actually make those cuts would do enormous damage to our community.

A well-designed consolidation plan can work. Athens and Columbus have both done well with their consolidated governments. But consolidation alone is on guarantee of success. The details matter, a lot. Unfortunately, the details of the plan on the ballot July 31 reveal a plan that is tremendously flawed.

Tom Ellington is the Ward III, Post 3 member of the Macon City Council.

Tom Ellington
Tom Ellington
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