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Date of Issue: August 04, 2005

Georgia up to speed on consolidation study costs

While the Florida Institute of Government has little information on the cost of a feasibility study to consolidate the three Island cities, its counterpart in Georgia has considerable experience in that area, having done a number of studies on consolidation recently. And the cost of such a study is surprisingly low.

Harry Hayes of the Carl Vinson Institute of Government at the University of Georgia in Athens said a "ballpark" figure for a transition cost study for all three Island cities would be between $25,000 and $40,000, "depending upon the scope of work."

Consolidation has become popular in Georgia the past decade, he said. Three cities, including Athens, have merged with their respective counties, and the CVIG is currently preparing studies on two other consolidation efforts.

But the feasibility study the CVIG did last year on the consolidation of Sea Island and St. Simons on Georgia’s Atlantic coast might be the model that most closely resembles Island consolidation. And the CVIG did that study for a mere $33,000.

Sea Island and St. Simons are cities in Glynn County and have a minority of the entire population, but because of rising property values, pay the vast majority of taxes to the county. Sound familiar?

The 2004 CVIG study found that consolidating the two cities would save about $500,000 in annual governmental expenses and actually reduce taxes.

But don’t think the study was biased from the beginning.

Bill Jones III, president of the Sea Island Co. real estate development firm, was a staunch opponent of consolidation, but agreed to pay $25,000 of the cost just for some actual data. The remaining $8,000 was paid by the Residents for United Planning and Action private citizens group.

After the CVIG study concluded that taxes would actually be lower and consolidation would save the taxpayers a lot of money, Jones changed his tune.

In a letter to the Sea Island Club, Jones said he is "convinced that incorporation is the best way for island residents to receive the full measure of services they pay for." Jones said he did not previously support consolidation because his company thought taxes would increase and it would be better to work with the existing governments for planning and development.

Providing a cost estimate for a feasibility study, however, isn’t exactly a black-and-white issue, said Hayes, and the CVIG normally doesn’t go into another state for research.

"Typically, we do studies in Georgia, but we’d be happy to talk with the governments in Florida" interested in consolidation, he said.

"We have to know what will be the focus of the study," he said. Do the three Island cities want to merge all three governments, or just certain services, such as police, parks and recreation, building departments and waste collection?

Once the institute knows the study focus, experts prepare an estimate for a "transition cost study," he said. That study would include a cost estimate on consolidation, Hayes added.

He cautioned that Islanders looking at the Sea Island-St. Simons feasibility study and costs and the Island’s needs might not be comparing "apples to apples," not until the CVIG knows exactly the scope of any Island consolidation study effort.

Going outside Florida for a feasibility study might be the quickest answer for any Island consolidation effort.

Consolidation of cities in Florida is a rarity, said Virginia Harrell of the Florida Institute of Government at the University of South Florida in Tampa. It’s so rare, the institute has never dealt with any consolidation of Florida cities.

"I don’t even have an idea of costs to do a feasibility study on consolidation," she said, although she has spoken to Holmes Beach Commissioner Don Maloney about estimated costs.

"The institute is far-reaching, but this office has never done this before. I’m trying to find someone now who can give an estimate, or who has prior experience with consolidation," Harrell said. She hopes to have an idea of costs within the next few weeks, she said.

The only "consolidation" in Florida that Harrell is aware of was in the late 1960s when Melbourne and Eau Gallie "merged" into the City of Melbourne.

About 12 years ago, the City of Gainesville and Alachua County discussed a possible merger, but talks proved fruitless, according to Gainesville City Clerk Ken Lannon. He added that consolidation of fire services between city and county was discussed recently, but the two entities never proceeded with a merger plan.

According to the City of Melbourne Web site, Eau Gallie and Melbourne "merged" in 1969 following several years of discussions and an approval vote from the Eau Gallie voters. Eau Gallie retained its distinction as a "district" in Melbourne, much as Cortez or Palma Sola are considered districts in Manatee County, but the "district" is within the Melbourne city limits.

An official with the Melbourne city clerk’s office said records on the merger and associated costs are available at city hall, but no one associated with the merger is still working for the city after 36 years.

Online archive records at the Florida Today newspaper in Melbourne did not extend back to 1969.