By Clint Confehr
Senior Staff Writer
County Mayor Joe Boyd Liggett and Commissioner Don Ledford are to consult with the four municipalities in the county to - at least - ascertain interest in consolidation of local governments to reduce the cost of services to taxpayers.
That's the result of a 15-2 vote for the assignment suggested by Commission Chairman Mike Waggoner during the monthly meeting of commissioners Monday night in the Courthouse Annex. Discussion indicated the vote implied support for a study to reveal whether consolidation is worth it or not.
Ledford raised the issue last month, practically saying that it would irresponsible if commissioners didn't explore every way to save money. Generally, leaders couldn't disagree, but a few recalled a similar effort that failed years ago, thereby reflecting some willingness to explore the idea, but a reluctance to advocate such an extensive change.
It would mean dissolving municipal charters and - at the most - merging Lewisburg, Chapel Hill, Cornersville and Marshall County's part of Petersburg into a countywide metropolitan government with a charter written to consolidate duplicated departments under one administration and legislative body.
Other alternatives might exclude Petersburg, a town on the Marshall-Lincoln border. When Maury County leaders began their study of consolidation, Spring Hill was seen as problematic under a metropolitan charter because it is on the border of Maury and Williamson counties.
As he announced a month ago, Waggoner placed Ledford's request on the agenda and as he addressed it Monday, the chairman apparently responded to Ledford's strident remarks last week when the commissioner alleged some commissioners didn't know there's an economic recession.
Waggoner has "no doubt ... that all of us have the same desire" to be judicious in spending, as does Ledford who's "known for his impeccable reputation," the chairman said, then turning the tables on Ledford, asking him to say how a metropolitan form of government would serve Marshall County.
Ledford pointed to spending resolutions, calling some optional. He listed several, itemizing costs and relating that to the value of a penny on the property tax rate. Some, including the pay raise for a full-time sessions and juvenile courts judge, staff, office as well as personnel benefits are required by state law, Ledford said.
If taxes aren't increased, he asked, what other spending should be cut?
County residents deserve the best from their commission and commissioners shouldn't serve their own interests, he said, adding he's "troubled" by the "attitudes" of some commissioners.
The public is "upset" with government, Ledford said.
Liggett supported Ledford's request for appointment of a metro study committee.
"It doesn't hurt to look at anything," the county mayor said. "We went through a growth plan that almost tore the county apart."
Municipal urban growth plans are to show where annexation might happen. It doesn't mean it will, but even looking at permission upset owners of land near a municipal border.
Maury County leaders have been studying consolidation, Liggett said. March 6, there's to be a referendum on a proposed charter.
"That's where the decision will be made," Liggett said referring to voters at the polls. "This is not something that will happen overnight."
Waggoner "wants to stay open" to the idea, but noted Marshall County "is very territorial," the chairman said.
Waggoner asked Liggett and Ledford to consult with leaders of the municipalities and report back to the commission. If there's a "positive" reaction from the municipalities, Waggoner said, then he'd entertain a motion to "move forward" toward establishment of a study committee.
Commissioner Rocky Bowden spoke in support of contacting the other local governments and Waggoner agreed.
"I'm an employee of a metro government," said Waggoner who works for the Metro Nashville Fire Department.
Without a vote by the commission, Ledford and Liggett said, their inquires at town and city halls would have little influence.
Waggoner was reluctant to conduct business and votes under an agenda listing categorized as announcements and communications, but he participated in an agenda-setting meeting with Liggett and the county budget director last week.
"I'm not opposed to a general motion," he continued, repeating his willingness to "be open" to considering reorganizing local governments, but questioning how a resolution should be phrased, then speculating on sending the topic to a committee for more work.
The chairman, Commissioner Tom Sumners suggested, could "take the issue under advisement" and return with a refined motion, suggestion, or recommendation.
Study costs, Commissioner Nathan Johnson said, should be avoided. Maury County spent $50,000 to $60,000.
"This is not going to be a cost savings, in my eyes," Johnson said, advocating consultation with leaders of the municipalities to ascertain whether more work is warranted.
Liggett resisted an assignment without a vote.
"If we meet and come back, we still wouldn't know how this body feels," the mayor said, then asking, "What are we to tell them" about commissioners' positions?
Bowden sought to avoid a roadblock.
"What if we had a motion for ... this research?" he asked. "Would that not be indicative of the feeling?"
Exploration of consolidation needs support from the municipalities, even though leaders may not be convinced that it would save money, Bowden said.
Waggoner spoke up for diplomacy with leaders of other jurisdictions. The commission does not have total control over the issue.
Ledford "will do whatever I can to assist Marshall County and the citizens," he said, but then emphasized that if municipal leaders are asked how they feel about the idea, then they'll want to know commissioners' position - for or against a study, or even on the issue of consolidation, generally.
Bowden reiterated his point that if the commission voted to have Liggett and Ledford consult with the municipalities, then it shows that commissioners are "open" to pursuing the concept to ferret out advantages and reveal disadvantages.
Commissioner Mickey King expressed doubts.
"I feel we're just sending them out to get a negative response from the cities," King said.
Other aspects were discussed and then, ironically, vote showed Ledford voting no, as did Commissioner Seth Warf. Sumners had to leave the meeting and therefore didn't vote. All others voted yes for Liggett and Ledford to ask municipal leaders about consolidation.
Ledford explained his vote saying, "To go into a meeting with that objective, you're just asking for failure, in my opinion."
Warf agreed, in general. The impression exists - "not purposefully" - that the concept won't gain support. "I'd like everybody to be on an equal playing field."
Chapel Hill Town Administrator Mike Hatten was present for the discussion and vote.
"I think we're open to it," Hatten said. "I look forward to sitting down with Mr. Liggett and Mr. Ledford to explore the advantages and challenges."