Originally created 11/18/99

Small counties fight mergers



ATLANTA -- In the nine months since she became tax commissioner in Taliaferro County, Kaye Jackson has learned firsthand how hard it can be keeping Georgia's smallest county financially afloat.

The county 50 miles west of Augusta has a tiny tax base, with 1,900 people and no industry but a wood treatment plant. Most residents leave the county to work and shop. High school students are bused to neighboring Greene County, which has consolidated its school system with Taliaferro to save money.

But ask Ms. Jackson, a Taliaferro (pronounced Tolliver) resident for more than 20 years, whether the county would be better off merging with one of its neighbors, she answers with a resolute "no."

"I just hate to think our little county couldn't make it on its own," Ms. Jackson said.

Their economies and populations have dwindled since the days when farmers wanted more compact counties so trips to the county seat would be shorter. But the smallest of the Georgia's 159 counties remain stubbornly independent.

Thirteen have paired with neighboring counties to operate joint school systems, 911 centers and other services. But none appears ready to merge completely when each county is a source of political power and government jobs that have deeply personal roots for longtime residents.

"I don't know of anybody who thinks we couldn't operate with less counties today," said Jerry Griffin, executive director of the Association County Commissioners of Georgia. "The next question becomes then, well which one of them don't we need? And I don't have any idea there."

That's bad news for residents of northern Fulton County who want to break away and from their own government. The state constitution limits the total number of counties in Georgia to 159, more than any other state but Texas.

In Fulton County, more than 7,000 people -- 18 Georgia counties have less population -- have signed a petition in support of forming a separate Milton County. Neighborhoods north of Atlanta contain Fulton County's wealthiest residents, and many complain they're getting shortchanged in services for the amount of taxes they pay.

State Rep. Mark Burkhalter, an Atlanta Republican who supports the breakaway group, is drafting a bill designed to create an opening for the proposed Milton County. The measure would try to force counties to fold when they don't provide a minimum of services.

"They're not doing anything," Mr. Burkhalter said. "They're not collecting people's garbage, they don't have sewer systems to run.... I don't understand how you can justify having them exist on paper, a county government, when there are people who can't have self government."

The Georgia Constitution gives the Legislature the power to merge or divide counties, but only if voters in the affected areas agree to the change. Mr. Burkhalter compares his proposal to a state law that in 1995 eliminated 188 Georgia cities because they failed to hold elections or provide services.

However, many of those cities already had died out and existed in name only. Georgia counties, on the other hand, all provide some level of service. And all have their own sheriffs, jails and courthouses. They all tax and assess property.

"The problem is they don't have the tax base to do it adequately, so they're hurting," said Douglas C. Bachtel, a rural sociologist at the University of Georgia.

Dr. Bachtel recalled being "resoundingly booed" in the early 1980s when he helped a group of lawmakers make a case for consolidating counties during several stops in rural Georgia.

Though smaller counties could save money by merging their governments and services, the reaction of residents was often deeply personal, Dr. Bachtel said.

In areas where local diners and drugstores are disappearing, counties give longtime residents a piece of their roots to hang on to. Some neighboring counties have longstanding rivalries fueled by high school football, Dr. Bachtel said.

And in places where jobs are scarce, county governments become valued employers.

In Taliaferro County, for example, about half the people working in the county are employed by the local, county, state and federal governments. Two-thirds of those workers are employed at the local and county level.

"If you're in local government, your brother-in-law might have some sort of contract, your sister-in-law might be a secretary," Dr. Bachtel said. "So by consolidating government, you'd be eliminating your brother-in-law's job. And if you want dinner that night, it might not be a good idea."

T.C. Harrington, who has owned a shoe repair shop in Taliaferro County for 50 years, said there's been talk of consolidation in the county before, most of it negative.

"People just don't want to give up their local government, for one thing, and move into another county," he said.