In the spring, the Columbia County Board of Commissioners granted approval for County Manager Scott Johnson to commission a study to explore the possibility of incorporating the county’s unincorporated land area, which excludes Harlem and Grovetown, into a city. The new city then immediately would consolidate with the county government.
If the plan ultimately is carried out, Columbia County could be the state’s first county with pre-existing cities to incorporate as a city or municipality and then merge with the county government.
The study, which is being by conducted the Center for Regional Impact at Valdosta State University, got underway in August. Johnson expects it to be complete by the end of the year.
“We’re at least a year away from going to the legislature with a proposal,” he says.
A member of the local legislative delegation would have to introduce a bill to allow Columbia County to incorporate and consolidate. The issue then would be brought before voters to decide in a referendum.
Once the study is complete, the county will post it online and solicit input from residents through online comments and public meetings as soon as early 2024.
The study will explore the pros and cons of the proposal.
“That’s the reason for the study,” Johnson says. “We don’t want to skew this in any way.”
Under incorporation and consolidation, the county could collect additional revenue such as franchise fees, which a utility company like Georgia Power pays a municipality to do business there. Once the utility company collects these fees, it turns them over to the city, which uses them as a revenue stream. Counties cannot collect franchise fees.
However, Harlem and Grovetown would be landlocked.
“If this goes through, Harlem would be what Harlem is now,” says Debra Moore, the city manager. “It would stop any further growth.”
Ronnie Kurtz, the Grovetown director of planning and development, says city officials have yet to fully analyze the proposal.
However, he says, “Our city’s map and boundaries would be etched in stone because we would no longer be able to grow in land area, and we could no longer annex properties. A large portion of Grovetown’s growth has been through annexation.”
Johnson says county officials had brief discussions with the mayor and city manager of Harlem and Grovetown before they made the proposal.
“We did meet with county officials and the City of Grovetown in February where we were apprised of the proposed study and plans,” Moore says. “Since that time, we have met once with District 4 Commissioner Alison Couch for any updates and for the cities to present any questions or concerns we may have had regarding this.”
The process could take up to three years to complete.
“We need to get the study. We will need to have a lot of public input and discussion about this,” says Johnson. “If the cons outweigh the pros, then we wouldn’t move forward.”