Dalton and Whitfield County residents could soon learn whether they will be voting on merging their two governments.
A commission created by the General Assembly has spent the past seven months studying the possibility of such a merger, and a subcommittee of the commission is preparing a report that will summarize the commission’s findings.
“We are probably about 80 percent finished,” said Phil Neff, chairman of the subcommittee, on Wednesday. “We’ve met with department heads and had a lot of discussions. We are still working on the language, compiling the reports and reviewing them. I hope that by not next Wednesday but the Wednesday after that we’ll have it ready to present to the full commission.”
Commission Chairman Frank Thomason said that after receiving the report the full commission will hold a public hearing and decide whether to recommend a complete combining of the two governments, a partial merger or no merger at all.
If commission members recommend a full merger of the two governments, the commission would then draft a charter for the proposed consolidated government. The legislation that created the merger commission mandates that the proposed charter would be placed on the ballot this November in the general election. A majority of voters in both the city of Dalton and Whitfield County as a whole would have to approve that charter for the merger to take place.
The commission could also recommend simply merging various departments. The City Council and the county Board of Commissioners would have to decide whether to act on those recommendations.
Whitfield County Attorney Robert Smalley and Dalton City Attorney Jim Bisson said they have spoken to a consultant who advises both governments on elections on how to set up the elected board of any combined government. That consultant advised creating a seven-person council. The county would be divided into four districts based on population, with one member elected by the voters in each district. The county would also be divided into two super districts, each containing two of the smaller districts, and one member each would be elected by voters in the super districts. The seventh member would be the chairman who would be elected countywide.
“That would take care of the one-person, one-vote issue and also make sure you get a more diverse group. But that is all tentative and we are continuing to discuss this,” Bisson said.
Commission member David Renz, who is helping draft the portion of the report dealing with fire protection, said he and others have met with officials from the Insurance Services Office (ISO) to see if the city and county could maintain separate ISO ratings if they merge the two fire departments.
“The answer we got was maybe,” he said.
The city currently has an ISO rating of 2, and the county has an ISO rating of 5. The lower the rating the better, and property owners pay less for fire insurance in lower-rated districts.
City officials have worried that merging the two departments could cause the city’s ISO rating to climb. But Renz said ISO officials indicated it might be possible to create a special tax district that would pay for a higher level of service in that district.