Georgia city-county unification not without bumps


Published: Sunday, September 1, 2002 at 6:01 a.m.
Last Modified: Sunday, September 1, 2002 at 12:32 a.m.

It's been a long and bumpy road at the Athens-Clarke County Police Department in Georgia since its unification 11 years ago.

But finally, after years of trial and error, police say the lumps and kinks seem to be smoothing out.

And with some whispers of unification of the Alachua County Sheriff's Office and the Gainesville Police Department, The Gainesville Sun took a look at a unified county somewhat similar to Alachua County.

About Athens and Clarke County

Athens, a southern college town, is home to the University of Georgia.

That area, like Gainesville, has a young population where police spend a lot of their time dealing with people drinking, loud parties and car crashes.

Athens sits in Clarke County and no longer is considered a separate city. Athens now shares the same borders as the county, and the consolidated city-county has a population of 101,000.

The entire city and county governments of Clarke County and the city of Athens in Northeast Georgia consolidated - also referred to as "unification" - in 1991. Citizens approved the merger after having voted it down once in the 1980s.

Clarke County still has a Sheriff's Office, which maintains the jail, serves warrants and handles court services. Georgia law says the Sheriff's Office can't be abolished. Before consolidation, there also was a Clarke County Police Department and an Athens Police Department.

Like Gainesville, Clarke County's population before consolidation was split almost evenly between the city and the unincorporated county. But it's smaller than Alachua County, both in size and population.

Alachua County has 900 square miles and 204,000 people versus Clarke County's 120 square miles and 101,000 people.

A rocky road at the start

Unification didn't meet with hearty approval in the police department 10 years ago, Athens-Clarke Police Chief Jack Lumpkin said.

"I was probably the only ranking officer who supported it," Lumpkin said. And although he supported it, he left shortly after unification and got a job for a few years at a police station in another town, returning as chief in 1997.

He left because he knew the adjustment to unification would be rough.

"I knew it would be a very difficult time for five or 10 years," Lumpkin said.

He supported unification because there was friction between city and county governments about providing services.

A culture clash between groups

Before unification, some people believed there were issues of double taxation because county residents paid more for water service, Lumpkin said. Residents also questioned, before unification, when fire and recreation programs would serve only the city.

Lumpkin said it seemed logical for the city and county government to merge because Clarke County was so small, with a geographical area of 120 square miles, making it the smallest county in Georgia.

But county residents voted unification down in the 1980s, claiming they didn't want to be held to city rules, Lumpkin said.

"People choose to live where they live for a reason," he said.

And partially because of that, the biggest challenge with unification was the culture clash.

The county police department and the city police department, each had a distinct culture, Lumpkin said. Consolidation meant those cultures would be eliminated and a new one created.

"Within an urban environment you have one culture and in rural you have another," Lumpkin said. "There are different rules and laws for the county and city.

"People within are not going to let that happen very quietly. Most people in the position they are in arrived there by behaving in a certain way. A new culture threatens that."

At first, officers from the two departments had a hard time agreeing on how things should be done, said Maj. Keith Morris, who was a lieutenant in the county police department when the two merged.

"The philosophies were different," Morris said. "Neither one was right or wrong."

Officers had to find a new way of doing things, Sgt. Jim Williams said.

"Many of us had the idea it would be better the way we used to do it," Williams said. "What we didn't realize is that when we consolidated, the agency was so much bigger, we had an entirely new situation."

For a while, that created an identity crisis, Morris said. Until the new uniforms were made and the patrol cars re-painted, officers in city uniforms were often seen driving county patrol cars and vice versa.

Money issues caused friction

But an even bigger adjustment to consolidation was disparity of pay, Williams said.

The charter that allowed the city and county police departments to consolidate mandated that the lower salaries of the county police be brought up to the level of the city police within five years.

But the government waited until the last minute to equalize salaries, Williams said.

"I think that was the biggest mistake," he said. "Take a sergeant who has been there longer than me, but his check is $75 to $100 less. It breeds resentment."

The salaries should have been equalized from day one, Williams said.

But when county police salaries were brought up to match the city police salaries, some city police were unhappy, Lumpkin said.

The Athens Police Department paid college graduates a bonus. That was eliminated when salaries were equalized, Lumpkin said.

And while the Athens Police Department paid tuition for officers who went back to college, that was eliminated for a while, although it has since been reinstated.

The Athens-Clarke police department also was left with a building too small to hold its 215 sworn personnel and has built substations to compensate. Problems unifying their radio systems are just now smoothing out, Williams said.

One aspect of policing that critics of consolidation mention - response times to police calls - didn't change after consolidation, Morris said.

And while the unification at first didn't save any money, some savings are now being realized, Lumpkin said.

More money would have been saved if there hadn't been a charter mandating that all jobs be kept, according to an article published in the summer of 2000 by the Southern Public Administration Education Foundation, a public administration quarterly.

But things are getting better, Lumpkin said.

"I believe we're out of the conflict stage," Lumpkin said. "You have to have quality people in order to listen and learn."

Kathy Ciotola can be reached at 338-3109 or ciotolk@gvillesun.com.

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