And the three dissenting voters have something else in common: They represent the three smallest cities in the county.
Merger commission members voted 11-3 to approve the group’s final report on Wednesday. Voting against it were Tunnel Hill Mayor Kenny Gowin, Cohutta Mayor Don Henderson and Varnell City Councilman David Owens. Dalton City Councilman George Sadosuk did not attend the meeting nor did he vote by proxy. Group Chairman Frank Thomason is a non-voting member, but said he supports the final report.
The report suggests merging the two governments’ parks and recreation department, public works department and law enforcement patrol. The commission had three options it could recommend: a full consolidation, a functional consolidation of particular departments or doing nothing at all. Members chose functional consolidation.
The commission suggested the Dalton City Council and Whitfield County Board of Commissioners reconvene the commission in the first and last quarters of 2013 to meet with elected officials “to review the progress made towards implementing some, if not all, of the commission’s recommendations.”
Some merger commission members don’t see the benefit of any consolidation.
“I’ve talked to a number of people and no one sees it as a positive for the county,” Henderson said, adding he was speaking for the entire community, not only Cohutta.
Gowin said he has spoken to county residents and many “weren’t so crazy about consolidation.” He spoke to several city and county department heads in person and on the telephone and “not one said ‘I think this is something we ought to do.’”
His biggest concern?
“Where’s the savings?” Gowin said. “How much money are we going to save?”
Representatives from the Carl Vinson Institute of Government of the University of Georgia provided guidance to the commission. Institute members weren’t able to provide any figures regarding cost savings, nor were they definitively able to say any type of consolidation would save money at all, Gowin said.
Other commission members do see benefit in consolidation.
Of chief concern to commission member Marshall Mauldin is the flurry of proposed tax increases throughout the county and how they could affect the area’s current depressed economy.
“I feel a real urgency to do something for the community,” Mauldin said. “You talk about people being shocked, they’re really going to be in shock when they get their tax bills.”
Commission member Phil Neff believes the county, like the rest of the country, is in a “dire situation.”
“The citizens are saying to their elected officials, ‘We’ve been taxed enough already,’” Neff said.
The reports states that unifying the two governments could benefit residents by “increasing efficiency, enhancing communication, supporting economic development, slowing the rate of government growth, improving levels of service and providing strategic, unified, visionary leadership for Dalton-Whitfield.”
However, there are challenges. They include the different freeport inventory exemption rates, the fate of Dalton Utilities and whether the city and county could maintain different Insurance Services Office (ISO) ratings if they merged. The city currently has an ISO rating of 2, and the county has an ISO rating of 5. The lower the rating the better, and property owners pay less for fire insurance in lower-rated districts.
“These challenges are not insurmountable, but they require time, possible legislation and collaboration from elected officials to overcome,” the report said.
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