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 email@example.com.
IN THEIR OWN WORDS
"Consolidation saved the city of Augusta from bankruptcy. Government services are running fine. It is the leadership chosen or elected by the people who have failed. We have not elected an experienced leader in the 10 years since consolidation. And until we do, Augusta will stay alive, but not move forward in a progressive way. Believe it or not, that is the way some powerful people want it.
LARRY SCONYERS, former Richmond County Commission chairman and first mayor of the consolidated government:
"If they gave the mayor a vote or a veto, things wouldn't have gotten out of hand. ... The government was set up to fail, and that's exactly what it's done. They got us to go out and sell a bill of goods to the citizens, and we did. And that was wrong."
CHARLES A. DEVANEY, mayor of Augusta for 12 years before consolidation:
"I think the concept of consolidation has always been a good one. The lesson we should learn and that other communities should take from us is if you're going to consolidate your local government, do it right. ... Instead of ending the bickering between two governments, the bickering now falls along other lines. In hindsight, what we probably did was push each other toward better government. Now there's no standard that's being set. There's no level of government setting a standard. Everybody's on their own, and hasn't that produced wonderful chaotic results."
DAVE BARBEE, Richmond County Republican Party chairman:
"Consolidation has not proved beneficial to the people of Richmond County. It was designed to try to save money. It was designed to be more efficient. And none of this has happened. If anything has happened, we've created a situation where it has turned into gridlock. And that's not good."
LINDA BEAZLEY, former Richmond County administrator and co-administrator the first year of consolidation:
"Consolidation was never done like it was intended to be done. I don't personally think that consolidation was a bad idea. ... I would like to see it work, and I think it can work. Columbus. Ga., is an example that a consolidated government can work. Athens-Clarke County is another. And there are more and more cities in Georgia trying to consolidate because they see it as a way of reducing the cost of the government."
RALPH WALKER, Augusta State professor who helped push a 1988 consolidation referendum and was a big supporter of the 1995 effort:
"It's the American way to attack the government, but when you actually get down to specific services, where else do you get your garbage picked up twice a week, and where else can you dump a whole bunch of bags of leaves and waste stuff and they come by every week and they pick them up? Go to another city and see what they do. I think our services are excellent here. Now, our government is not excellent, and consolidation is the whipping boy for dissatisfaction with the existing form of government."
MOSES TODD, elected to the consolidated government in 1995; resigned to run for mayor in 1998:
"I think it probably worked out good for the city and county government in the sense that the city was financially in trouble ...
"The reason I opposed consolidation initially had nothing to do with whether it could be efficient or not or whether it was good overall. It was the attempt by some to disenfranchise a minority in the process. And probably in the end the minority community got the best package that could be expected."