Barrow mayors discuss consolidation

WINDER - Barrow County citizens could get their water, sewer and utilities from one source in a few years. A Winder-Barrow County consolidated government, like nearby Athens-Clarke County, might not be far behind.

County Commission Chairman Doug Garrison, who has said he favors a combined city/county government, asked Barrow County's six mayors to consider forming a 17-member citizens' unification commission. The commission, consisting of laypeople rather than politicians, would investigate establishing a countywide government, or at least consolidating services like police, fire and utilities. Each governing authority would contribute $5,000 to the commission for its work.

"We are the eighth smallest county and we have six municipalities," Garrison said. "Who's to say we won't have a John's Creek? I don't know how we could survive that growth."

The process could take at least two years, Garrison said. If local mayors like the idea, the next step would be to draw up a bill and present it to their respective city council members. After passing those arenas, Rep. Terry England would present legislation that could allow formation of the citizens' unification committee. The bill would then have to merit the approval of the Georgia General Assembly, after which a special public election would be held, allowing the people to approve or reject the proposal.

The measure would not get off the ground without Winder's cooperation, Garrison said.

"Winder will continue to work to combine services," said City Administrator Bob Beck.

Several of Barrow County's mayors took an interest in combining services and utilities.

"We would be extremely interested in a joint effort," said Bethlehem Mayor Wayne Ridgeway. "We depend on Winder for our water and gas."

Braselton Mayor Pat Graham said it might be too early to form a conclusive opinion.

"Our basic role as elected officials is to provide services to our citizens at the lowest possible cost," she said. "We have to look at what can be consolidated and the cost. Until we have those numbers, it is premature to discuss it."

Braselton, whose city limits sprawl across four counties, and Auburn, which is split between Barrow and Gwinnett Counties, could be excluded from the proposed consolidation.

Carl Mayor David Brock said he is "all for" a single government.

"It's a more efficient government with less money and people," Brock said. "We don't need 15 mayors."

Statham Mayor Robert Bridges quickly summed up his reaction.

"I want to stay very open-minded," Bridges said.

In other business in Monday's mayor's meeting:

•County Commissioner Bill Brown will chair a future committee that will help Barrow County ready itself for a major emergency, like a flu pandemic.

"Researchers believe that the bird flu will mutate and pass from person to person," said Michael Fischer, deputy administrator. "Our area does not have enough hospital beds."

•Barrow County will soon create a master plan for water use that will take the county into 2030 or 2050, Garrison said.

Barrow County withdraws 8 million of its allowed 11 million gallons per day from Bear Creek, City Engineer Terry Darraugh said. Statham takes 1 million gallons per day from Barber Creek Lake, but could take more.

"If we raised the lake 1 foot, we could take 2 million gallons per day," Bridges said.