Incorporation and Consolidation


consolidated government.A multi-phased process that could bring changes to Columbia County is underway but far from over.

Déjà vu, anyone? As it did in the early 2000s, Columbia County once again is exploring the possibility of forming a consolidated government.

This time, however, the county is following a different path. Under the current scenario, the unincorporated portions of the county first would incorporate into a city, and the initial phase of the process – a fiscal feasibility study – is complete.

The study found that it would be feasible fiscally for Columbia County to incorporate its entire land area, excluding the cities of Grovetown and Harlem, into a new city and then merge with the county to create a consolidated government.

“This is something we’ve talked about for a long time. When we look at the financial aspects of this, it just makes sense,” says Scott Johnson, county manager.

While the study found that incorporation and consolidation could be feasible fiscally, it did not address the social, political or governance aspects of the proposal.

Under incorporation and consolidation, the new municipality would become Georgia’s sixth largest city. However, voters will have the final say in the matter, which could take three years to decide.

Fiscal Feasibility

A feasibility study is required by the state House of Representatives before it can consider legislation that proposes incorporation. Now that the report is complete, legislation could be drafted this year and come up for a vote the following year. “It could go before the voters the year after that,” Johnson says.

However, he says the next step is to gather public input, which could begin in late spring or early summer.

“Some people are very excited about the possibility. Some people are very apprehensive about it,” Johnson says. “We’re gathering information, and we’re going to put it before the voters.”

Conducted by Valdosta State University, the study is available online at

The report concludes, “Based on our analysis, we find existing revenues of $248 million exceed likely expenditures for the services identified to be provided, projected at $191 million, and therefore have concluded that the City of Columbia is likely fiscally feasible.”

According to the study, consolidation could provide the county with additional revenue streams such as franchise fees, which are paid by companies or utilities to operate within a county or municipality.

For the purpose of the study, Georgia Power fees were examined. As of March 2023, the county franchise fees were 1.1839% of usage cost, and Georgia Power’s municipal franchise fee rate was 3.0647% of usage cost.

“Franchise fees would go up if we were inside a city,” Johnson says. “We’re missing out on $8.4 million in revenue.”

While county residents’ power bills would increase annually by about $23, he continues, the new municipality could use the fees to reduce the current millage rate of 4.895 by 0.808 mills to 4.087.

Other potential revenue sources could include an increase in hotel/motel taxes, grants and expanded code enforcements.

What About Grovetown and Harlem?

“There are a lot of unanswered questions,” says Gary Jones, Grovetown’s mayor and a lifelong Columbia County resident. “From a personal standpoint, I like the aspect of having a rural area in the county.”

In addition, Grovetown and Harlem would be landlocked with no possibility of growth through annexation.

According to the county’s Geographic Information Systems Department, Grovetown has 556 acres of undeveloped land. However, Jones says, “Areas that are undeveloped are in the inner core. We need to spread out so we don’t have so much traffic congestion.”

He says he would like to negotiate with county officials in the near future about letting the city accumulate more land through annexation.

According to the county GIS department, Harlem has 1,843 acres of undeveloped land.

“We have at least two active developments with a third having started with their infrastructure and one more development that will be a combination of commercial and residential to start in the coming months,” says Debra Moore, Harlem city manager. “These are all within what I would call Harlem proper, with areas out toward the actual city limits to still be developed on both the north side and east side of the city.”

In the study, Harlem mayor Roxanne Whitaker and Elaine Matthews, Grovetown city administrator, raised other issues as well. They included sales tax distribution, intergovernmental agreements, public safety, the organizational structure of the new government and community identity.

“We have been told that there will be no changes, that all will continue to work as it is now,” Moore says.

Johnson also says that residents would be able to keep their current mailing addresses.

“The county has always given us a voice and a seat at the table, but it is still something to consider and think about. There has been some discussion with the mayor and council, but we have no concrete comments pertaining to being in support of or not in support of this move by the county,” Moore says. “We are waiting and watching to see what the next step is and will go from there. We understand that, as a city, our residents who live within our city limits will not have a vote in this matter as it impacts those who live in the unincorporated area more directly.”