As one of the biggest backers of the merger between the city of Augusta and Richmond County, Ralph Walker preached patience in 1995 for the inevitable stumbles caused by a marriage of two governments.
Ten years later, with bickering on the Augusta Commission threatening to completely bog down the county, patience is in short supply among residents. Dr. Walker, the director of Augusta State University's research center, admits ironing out the kinks has taken longer than expected.
"Normally you work them out in five years," he said. "We're still working them. We're a little slow."
But Dr. Walker is still bullish on consolidation. He rates the overall transition from two governments a 7 (with 10 being the highest score) and said consolidation has been successful in terms of merging departments and providing services.
What has failed, he said, is the current structure of government, and he thinks that has colored most people's opinion of consolidation.
"Many people in their minds tie consolidation and the commission together," Dr. Walker said. "And as we know, the commission has come under a lot of fire, so then so has consolidation, and it's hard to separate the two in people's minds. I think consolidation has been reasonably successful."
Dr. Walker points to what he considers areas of success, such as the relatively uneventful merger of the former Augusta City Police Department and the Richmond County Sheriff's Office. He said merging two law enforcement agencies typically is one of the toughest parts of a consolidation, and he gives kudos to former Sheriff Charlie Webster for quickly equalizing wages among officers to prevent turmoil.
Dr. Walker also credits consolidation with updating the county's water system and providing garbage service for all residents. He acknowledged that property taxes have gone up but said they increased less than what they would have if the governments hadn't merged. Plus, consolidation was never sold as a means to cut taxes and save money, he said.
"When you consolidate, you're picking up a lot of county area that did not have the services, therefore you're expanding services, and obviously that costs money," Dr. Walker said. "The cost of everything has gone up. Why doesn't the cost of government go up? Our contention was that it would go up slower under consolidation, and I think it has gone up slower under consolidation. And therefore I think that's an advantage."
Augusta has a long history of consolidation efforts dating as far back as 1948, when the Augusta Citizen Union pushed the need for a union between the city and county. All failed until 1988, when city and county voters approved consolidation only to have it rejected by the U.S. Justice Department because of concerns it diluted minority voting strength.
Dr. Walker, who helped draft a 1972 consolidation measure and served as chairman for a government transition team before the 1988 effort was overturned, has studied numerous consolidations through the years. He maintains that Augusta's has been successful, for the most part.
"You have excellent services and a low property tax. What more do you want?" he asked. "People ought to go to New York, Massachusetts or New Jersey and look at the property taxes and look at the services and then come back to Augusta and they're going to say, 'Wow, it's good to be home.'"
Reach Mike Wynn at (706) 823-3218 or firstname.lastname@example.org.
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