The Claxton City Council met for a workshop ahead of their regular council meeting Monday night to discuss the recently released consolidation study completed by the UGA Carl Vinson Institute of Government.
Council members Mel Kelly, Risher Willard, Robert Benjamin, Tina Hagan, Larry Anderson, Dean Cameron, and Jeffrey Rogers were all present, as was Mayor Terry Branch.
Ahead of the discussion on the actual consolidation report, the council discussed a recent email sent by Evans County Administrator Casey Burkhalter, which inquired as to whether the city would be interested in partnering for a city-county position for EMA director and code enforcement.
EMA Director Partnership
Longtime EMA Director John Womble recently resigned from the position and Burkhalter is serving as the interim director until the position is filled. The county commissioners named finding a new EMA Director as a top priority at their own workshop just last week. The EMA Director position is mandated at the state level as a responsibility for a county government, but for the last several years, Claxton has contributed half of the costs to the position. It was only recently that the city decided to no longer fund the joint effort.
And it appears the city isn’t willing to fund the effort again. At least not right now. Councilman Willard said the city isn’t a ‘cash cow’ for everyone else, referencing the lack of funding provided by Bellville, Hagan, and Daisy. “I think an error we’ve made in the past is assuming that that should be a 50/50, whatever we’re talking about,” he said. “Our demographics are different, our population is different, our income is different. Everything is different, so you can’t just be 50/50 even though that’s an easy number to work with. So, in my opinion, I would have to decline this right now,” speaking to the inquiry by Burkhalter.
Councilman Mel Kelly said the city would be glad to give up the position of building inspection if it was full-time by the county. “Everyone in the city pays county taxes,” he said.
Councilwoman Tina Hagan pressed on the financial side of the EMA position in particular. “Do you remember the former mayor kept inquiring about some money that we paid and we never got a resolution on that. We never got that money back and that was for this position, wasn’t it?”
Kelly said it’s about who is overseeing the position. “You would end up with someone working for two different groups of government. That’s the problem here. Who ever is in charge doesn’t need to work for but one government.”
City Attorney Bill Callaway said the city still hasn’t received word on whether or not the county will allow the LOST dollars that were being allocated to the county EMA position to go elsewhere in the city. The city would like to redirect the money to public safety.
The council unanimously agreed that assisting the county in the position would not be beneficial at the present time and Callaway instructed Mayor Branch to ‘decline the invitation.’
Across the board, council members were not enlightened by the consolidation report which analyzed aspects of full consolidation between the municipalities and Evans County.
Willard said the consolidation report needs to be reviewed more, but that one of the issues is that taxes in the city are already low and can’t go much lower. “We aren’t really paying that much in city taxes. So are you going to cut 50% of your staff to lower taxes $50? That’s ridiculous.”
But Kelly said the consideration for consolidation is about revenue streams. “Gas, water, sewer, franchise fees, all that stuff,” he told other members. If consolidated, the county as a whole could garner the money for franchise fees instead of the majority going to the cities.
Interim City Administrator Carter Crawford said city residents are paying more county taxes than those in the unincorporated areas, a state issue which allows for insurance rollback for unincorporated areas. “If you read between the lines of what they’re saying, they’re saying the people in the city would be paying the same as the county, so what they’d be doing is just robbing the taxes they charge to the people who live in the city. I don’t know how that came about. We don’t have enough time to talk about that tonight,” Crawford said.
Callaway pressed the council to consider who would get fired in a consolidation. “They don’t have enough money to keep their garbage sites open so how are they going to afford a cut?” Crawford seconded the notion that some would lose their jobs in consolidation while Kelly and Branch said there aren’t enough employees in either entity which has left many employees wearing several hats.
That brought up the issue of the trash sites once again, which city officials hold should be open to city residents because they pay county taxes as well. Councilman Cameron elaborated on his own experience with the sites and said his contribution in county taxes should suffice for use, but the issue didn’t go much further than that.
Councilman Anderson listened to his fellow council members before interjecting that he didn’t believe the idea of consolidation was positive.”If this was such a popular or successful thing, then why are only seven or eight counties participating in this…out of 159?” Anderson said as Hagan echoed his statements.
“I read this consolidation report and there’s really not a whole lot of anything with a great deal of substance,” Anderson said.
Willard also took issue with Bellville’s lack of payment for police services to the county and the Sheriff’s office covering Hagan when necessary. “That goes back to what I was saying about everyone looking for us to be the cash cow for everything that they do.” Willard said if everyone went all-in on the consolidation agreement, many people would be paying a lot more, especially Bellville and Daisy.
As the council members began winding down the conversation, Willard said it comes down to the what the county can offer in a potential consolidation. “This is it in a nutshell for me: “What does Evans County bring to the table that we don’t already have? Evans County doesn’t bring a lot to the table that we don’t already do ourselves. We bring a lot to the table for them. But they don’t bring much to us, so that’s the answer right there. They’re looking for what we can give them and I’m not comfortable with that.”
City Fire Chief Harold Rogers said he recently delivered a request to the county for an automatic aid agreement for fire services, a move that could lower ISO ratings. The city and county currently have a mutual aid agreement that operates by request only, which does not improve ISO ratings for anyone. Automatic aid would mean the two would respond to all calls for support unless support is explicitly stated as unneccesary.
No action was taken in the workshop, and council members agreed the next step would be to have a longer, more in-depth workshop with the county. If more than 2 members of each body gather, that meeting will be open to the public.
Monday night’s meeting was the last official meeting of 2017 and the last meeting ever for councilmen Mel Kelly, Robert Benjamin, and Jeff Rogers. New council members will be sworn in in January.