In Commerce, a dispute is raging about the future of that town’s recreation department and whether or not the city should have the county recreation system take over the town’s rec programs.
In Barrow County, the county government and City of Winder are entangled in a messy legal battle over water services and where each government can or should provide water services.
While different topics, both of these issues highlight the tensions that often come up between municipal governments and county governments.
Get ready for more such flashpoints.
Both Barrow and Jackson counties are growing at a fast rate. Local governments are feeling that pressure and it’s causing additional friction as they try to sort out who should be responsible for what.
The Barrow-Winder issue is a good example. The City of Winder has long provided water services outside its city limits. But in recent years, the Barrow County government has become more aggressive in its water service expansions.
State-mandated service delivery strategy agreements are supposed to help mitigate service territory deals, but that has failed in Barrow County. As a result, the two sides are fighting in court over who gets to provide water to what areas.
Part of the argument revolves around money. Winder sets rates to cover both operating expenses and capital investments and uses “profits” from that system to help fund general city government expenses.
The county sets usage rates, but also taps into SPLOST and bond funding for its capital expansion expenses. The county also argues that Winder, in effect, is charging its out-of-city water customers higher rates to help fund general city government expenses through the back door.
It’s a convoluted mess, but is a pretty clear example of how local governments can crossways. I suspect the average citizen in Winder and Barrow county really don’t care very much about the legal issues in this dispute — citizens just want reliable water service at reasonable rates — the details of how that happens don’t extend much beyond their faucets.
The situation in Commerce is a little different. It’s the public, not the public officials, who are riled up about the city’s recreation department and a proposal to merge that department with the county’s recreation system.
Commerce’s recreation program has long been under-funded. That’s pretty common for small town rec departments — historically, recreation wasn’t really a part of most local governments portfolios. And since participation in rec sports teams has a rapid turnover, community interest wanes as people’s kids age and move out of rec programs. There’s not much sustained interest or incentive to invest in facilities or expanding programs in many communities. Without that, funding for rec programs is often put on the backburner.
That’s pretty much what’s happened in Commerce. City leaders know they need more facilities, but have waited so long that building those have become very expensive. To buy land, build facilities and update existing facilities has a price tag of $20-$30 million.
Commerce doesn’t have that kind of money and has some other big capital projects currently on the front-burner.
Faced with that reality, the city began meeting with county leaders to see if the county could help fund the city’s recreation needs. The proposal that came out of those talks was, in effect, for the county recreation department to take over the city’s facilities and programs and make it part of the larger county rec system. Tacit in that deal would be the understanding that the county would, when it could, build more rec facilities in the Commerce area.
The deal isn’t quite as one-sided as it may first appear. The county rec programs would be getting something from such an arrangement, too. It would help fill a geographic hole in the county’s rec facilities on the east side of the community and it would give the county rec system its first swimming pool and swim team program.
But what Commerce and county public officials see as a win-win arrangement was met with a firestorm of pushback from some Commerce citizens. Some of the pushback has been rooted in misinformation and misunderstanding, but much of it is emotional. There’s a feeling that if the departments merge, Commerce would lose its “small town feel.”
That’s a powerful community sentiment that’s difficult to ignore.
Although an objective look at the proposal makes it clear that it’s probably what’s best for the children (and adults) in the Commerce area and it’s financially prudent, the sense that something larger — the county — will run local rec programs gives some Commerce citizens a feeling that they’re losing their small town control. The idea that “smaller is better” and the fear of the unknown have strong emotional strings in a community, especially one like Commerce that’s on the cusp of facing a wave of growth.
I’m not sure the kids playing rec ball care about who controls the arcane bureaucracy of their programs, or care about who pays for the fields they play on, but parents care and parents vote and it’s difficult for public officials to ignore that kind of sentiment.
While the details of the Barrow and Commerce controversies are different, they raise fundamental questions about what local governments should do.
Historically, county governments had a very limited portfolio of duties. Beyond funding the four constitutional offices (tax commissioner, probate judge, sheriff and clerk of court), county governments typically focused on paving roads. That was a big deal in the early 1900s as automobiles became available and road paving began. (Today, transportation is still a big deal with county governments, but that extends beyond just paving.)
City governments have a history of offering deeper levels of service to a community that has a more concentrated population. That included, among other things, water/sewer infrastructure and recreation programs.
But since the 1970s, county governments have grown beyond their road roots and have gotten into the water and sewer business and into providing recreation programs. As counties became more like cities, conflicts began between the two over who should do what and where.
And there’s another layer to these city-county tensions as well.
As was pointed out at a recent Jackson County Board of Education meeting, local schools systems are directly impacted by decisions county and city governments make.
The Jackson County system is booming on the west side, yet the BOE has zero control over how many new homes are being built or where they’re being built. They can’t control the county’s zoning system or the zoning in the various towns in the community. Yet, they have to contend with those decisions, especially the bad decisions other local governments make.
In today’s political culture, many people are intensely focused on national or state politics and the allied culture wars spinning around each.
But it’s the multitude of local government layers that really affects us most.
What happens between Barrow County and the City of Winder will impact citizens in both communities. What is decided by the Commerce City Council about its recreation department’s future will affect citizens in that town and beyond.
Today’s world is increasingly complex, not the least of which involves the many layers of local governments.
Those decisions deserve more of our attention. They may not happen in Washington D.C., but they matter in ways much deeper than the politics we see on television.
Welcome to the discussion.
Keep it Clean. Please avoid obscene, vulgar, lewd, racist or sexually-oriented language.
PLEASE TURN OFF YOUR CAPS LOCK.
Don't Threaten. Threats of harming another person will not be tolerated.
Be Truthful. Don't knowingly lie about anyone or anything.
Be Nice. No racism, sexism or any sort of -ism that is degrading to another person.
Be Proactive. Use the 'Report' link on each comment to let us know of abusive posts.
Share with Us. We'd love to hear eyewitness accounts, the history behind an article.