City, county merger study draws strong opposition


Published: Wednesday, January 14, 2009 at 6:01 a.m.
Last Modified: Tuesday, January 13, 2009 at 11:20 p.m.

A study into the feasibility of merging the equal opportunity offices run by the city of Gainesville and Alachua County drew strong opposition Tuesday from some county commissioners, who said it could involve the county in costly lawsuits while producing minimal savings.

Commissioner Cynthia Chestnut in particular said she would not favor a merger.

"This is a charter office at the city. It has some issues that the city probably needs to resolve that I am not interested in picking up at this time. I personally do not support a merger," Chestnut said at Tuesday's commission meeting.

"If we are going to look at a merger of departments, this is not where I would start," Chestnut continued.

Commissioner Rodney Long recently suggested the city and county study the merger as a way to save money.

The two offices share some common functions to ensure that residents in the community, and city and county employees, are not discriminated against in hiring, housing and other areas.

The city's office is headed by a charter officer who reports directly to the City Commission while the county's office is run as a department under general government.

County and city officials will study the merger to try to learn how much money it would save, the pros and cons, the potential effectiveness of a joint office and other factors.

"We are going to have to start looking at all kinds of ways by which the county is going to be able to continue to provide services. It will allow us the opportunity to see if it can be done," Long said. "It may come back that it's not even feasible to do. But it gives government the opportunity to start exploring the opportunities to unify or consolidate services."

Gainesville Mayor Pegeen Hanrahan said a merger has some potential savings.

"The city has accepted the opportunity to explore it further with the understanding that there would likely be one fewer highly paid employee - probably salary and benefits in excess of $100,000 - and also maybe some benefits with joint training and recruiting," Hanrahan said. "We've asked our staff to do an in-depth analysis and we are expecting it to take about 60 days. We'll take a look at it probably in early April and see where we're at."

The city and county have less money to spend because of tax cuts the past two years.

Some county commissioners said they don't believe merged equal opportunity offices would save much money. Commissioner Lee Pinkoson said it could end up being more costly to the county.

"This particular office is probably involved in an awful lot of expensive litigation potentially," Pinkoson said. "Do we want to increase our risk? That should go into the conversation as far as we are concerned. There is the potential for lawsuits . . . and the nature of the lawsuits can be expensive. Do we share some of the responsibility for the city of Gainesville?"

Chestnut said she favors examining all the potential departments that could be merged comprehensively rather than one at a time. Some other departments mentioned including planning, fleet management and public works.

Gainesville City Manager Russ Blackburn pointed out that the city and county currently provide some services for each other. For instance, the city operates street lights in the county while the county provides solid waste disposal for the city.

Blackburn said looking for similar ways to save money or provide services more efficiently would be welcomed by the city.

Contact Cindy Swirko at 374-5024 or swirkoc@gvillesun.com.

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