Members of the Dalton-Whitfield merger commission agreed Wednesday to start their study of the possibility of merging city and county governments by focusing on the two fire departments.
“There has already been a good study done on merging those two departments,” said Commission Chairman Frank Thomason. “Because of that, we thought that was a good place to start.”
A study delivered to the Whitfield County Board of Commissioners and the Dalton City Council in April found that merging the two departments is feasible, though there would be some hurdles. Mizzelle, Hodges and Associates, a Dublin, Ga-.based consulting firm, found that a merged department could maintain different districts and they could be paid for through a fire protection fee instead of taxes, making sure that those who get the higher level of service pay for it. That fee could be assessed on churches and other buildings that are exempt from property taxes, which officials said make it more fair.
City and county officials agreed to provide that study to commission members.
Commission members tentatively agreed to look at law enforcement after their review of the fire departments.
During Wednesday’s meeting, commission members selected Thomason, former superintendent of Dalton Public Schools, as their chairman. They elected business consultant Tangela Johnson as vice chairman. And they selected Whitfield County Clerk Samantha Bearden and Dalton City Executive Administrative Assistant Kim Witherow as secretaries.
“It’s very important that we keep good notes, minutes and records of everything we do,” said Whitfield County Board of Commissioners Chairman Mike Babb, who is also a member of the commission.
At Babb’s suggestion, commission members also asked city and county officials to set up email accounts for them to communicate with each other.
They also agreed to ask city and county officials to jointly agree to a contract with the University of Georgia’s Carl Vinson Institute to provide a review of similar local governments that have merged, the issues they faced and the policies they came up with. A proposal from the institute said such a study would take six weeks to two months and cost between $6,000 and $7,000.
“I’d like to see what other cities have dealt with and maybe get a map for how we should proceed,” said commission member Phil Neff.
City Administrator Ty Ross and County Administrator Mark Gibson said they would place that item on the agendas of the council and the commissioners at their first meetings in July.
Merger commission members agreed to take next week off because of the Fourth of July holiday, but they plan to meet each Wednesday through at least the end of August.
Commission members have received copies of the city and county budgets for the past three years, as well as audits. They requested information on services the two governments have already merged, such as building inspection, or jointly fund, such as the library and senior center.
The Dalton-Whitfield merger commission will next meet on Wednesday, July 13, at 2 p.m. in Dalton City Hall.