WTOC Investigates: Could consolidation save Savannah, Chatham County taxpayers millions?

Published: Feb. 21, 2018 at 10:17 PM EST|Updated: Feb. 22, 2018 at 6:26 PM EST
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SAVANNAH, GA (WTOC) - What if you could save hundreds of dollars every year by paying less property taxes? That's what experts say a consolidated government would do. It could reduce your overall tax bill while aiming to make government more efficient.

In the wake of the Savannah-Chatham police demerger and a potential vote to incorporate Skidaway Island, fed-up state lawmakers have requested $200,000 from the state to conduct a feasibility study that will look at consolidating the City of Savannah and Chatham County governments.

Why did the Savannah-Chatham consolidation referendum fail on the ballot 45 years ago and how have other Georgia cities been able to do it successfully?

It was 1973, as President Nixon was making national headlines with the Watergate scandal, local headlines debated the issue of a Savannah-Chatham consolidation.

In June of that year, Chatham County voters were tasked with deciding whether they wanted to consolidate the City of Savannah and the unincorporated areas. The vote failed because it didn't get a majority in both the city and unincorporated area of the county.

But the effort to consolidate didn't stop there. Less than 10 years later, state lawmakers were pushing to get it back on the ballot in 1982. Former State House Representative Ron Ginsberg was one of them.

"There are certain rules in the legislature that you have to get so many legislators to sign on to a bill, particularly a local bill to make it effective," said former District 122 Rep. Ginsberg.

But they didn't get the signatures and the revival effort went nowhere because a couple of Ginsberg's colleagues disagreed with how the votes were calculated back in 1973.

What's the difference between incorporation, annexation and consolidation? 

According to a Savannah Morning News article from March 10, 1982, "they believed that two referendums should be held – one for all voters in Chatham County and one for all voters in the City of Savannah - giving city voters two votes in any merger decision."

But when a double-majority referendum was not an option in 1982, some lawmakers made sure it didn't go back on the ballot.

A city vote that's also counted in the county is not a new concept for consolidation in Georgia.

In fact, that's how consolidation was passed in Columbus-Muscogee and Macon-Bibb County.

"I'm not sure if it will be set up the same way in Savannah-Chatham County but if you voted in the city, your vote counted twice because you pay taxes in both the places," said Macon-Bibb County Mayor Pro Tem Al Tillman.

Tillman was elected to serve as part of the new consolidated government after the referendum passed in 2012. It was the 5th attempt to consolidate since 1933.

"If the city goes then so does the county," Tillman said. "Listen, there was a hole in the boat and the water was seeping through the hole. It was just a matter of time. You can't just keep dipping the water out of the boat."

By 2012, voters in Macon and Bibb County recognized it was time to change.

"We had a majority of people here in the commission that could not seem to work together and get along together," Tillman said. "The arguing and bickering, of course, that happens with any municipality, but it was being displayed so heavily on the news that it was as though our government wasn't getting anything done and we needed to consolidate and combine."

Watch the full interview with Al Tillman: 

For Macon, the transition took 18 months. The city council and county commission was dissolved and voters had to elect a brand-new board of commissioners and a new mayor, who also now acts as the chairman. As departments and positions were either consolidated or eliminated, it was spelled out in their charter that no one would lose their job. But they had to get creative because the charter also required that they reduce their budget by 20 percent.

"Sometimes you have people who are sitting on the job for 30 years and are now a supervisor. They come to work and relax every day," Tillman said. "But if you offer them a package, through attrition those [supervisors] can move on and others can step up and continue to maintain the jobs."

Macon-Bibb County also managed to cut their property taxes. Like Savannah and Chatham County, prior to consolidation residents living in the City of Macon were paying city, county and school taxes.

Once the consolidation passed, the city millage rate was phased out over the course of four years, reducing their total millage rate by 7.5 mills. So regardless of where you live in Macon-Bibb County, residents now only pay county and school taxes.

A 7.5 mill reduction for a City of Savannah resident living in a $289,000 home could equate to a savings of about $870 a year on your total property tax bill, that's without any type of homestead exemption.

Officials in Macon-Bibb County say consolidation not only reduces taxes but it also stimulates economic development because businesses only have to deal with one local government.

The downtown area of Macon is now thriving but prior to consolidation, officials say it was a ghost town.

"I think it's been a game changer for us in terms of economic development," Macon-Bibb County Industrial Authority Chairman Robby Fountain said. "Prior to consolidation, it was very slow. We did have a little success but nothing in the way of success that we have now."

Fountain says they've been able to transform their downtown and bring in companies like Amazon, which is building a distribution center right off of I-75.

"When they [Amazon] came in, they had a checklist a mile long," Fountain said. "Being consolidated checked that list a lot quicker than having to through two different governments."

"Do you think they would have even approached Macon-Bibb County if y'all had not been consolidated?" WTOC's Elizabeth Rawlins asked.

"No, I don't think so," replied Fountain. "I think when site selectors start looking around the state of Georgia they look for that because they know their timelines are very quick."

Watch the full interview with Robby Fountain: 

Since consolidation, more than 1,600 jobs have been created because of all of the economic development. And in just six years, Macon-Bibb county officials say they aren't looking back.

"If everyone is on the same page working together," said Mayor Pro Tem Al Tillman.  "This intergovernmental agreement can work and I think it's working for us."

And that's potentially up to the voters of Savannah and Chatham County to decide should it make it on the 2019 ballot.

"When I started I was 35 years old. I'm now 72," said Former State Rep. Ron Ginsberg. "The idea is that so much has changed."

It may be a different time but for Ginsberg, his opinion hasn't changed at all.

"It will be for a long-term better for the community. But it's this trust factor in the community that's going to be very difficult," Ginsberg said.

That trust factor he's referring to is the unknown.

Before a consolidation referendum ever goes back on the ballot, a feasibility study must be conducted first. State lawmakers are waiting to find out if their request for the $200,000 to fund the study will be approved during the 2018 legislative session.

Hear from two local politicians on the study:

State Sen. Lester Jackson, D-District 2

State Rep. Ron Stephens, R-Savannah

If the money is approved, the University of Georgia's Carl Vinson Institute is slated to conduct the study. If the study recommends consolidation, the earliest it would be on the ballot would be in 2019.

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