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Inching toward consolidation

It’s encouraging to hear — even if it’s just a trickle at this point — that local government agencies are receptive to consolidation beyond the services delivered by the county to all citizens of Baker County.

If there is anything more apparent in this era of expanding services and declining revenues, it’s that duplicity needs to be eliminated wherever possible.

If this writer had his way, we’d already have consolidated county-city government. From a practical standpoint, it’ll likely take years but 2011 is a great time to start.

An article in this week’s newspaper talks about Macclenny and Baker County teaming up on a bid for propane gas and realizing a substantial savings by doing so. Bravo.

Both governments, the article points out, already have a joint venture in the yard waste burner north of Macclenny, and for years other vital areas like the courts, law enforcement and rescue service, property appraisal and tax collection, animal control and code enforcement are handled by a single entity.

There are other key areas that lend themselves to consolidation — fire and road departments come to mind. But they all point to one end — the complete merging of all local government agencies into one county government.

As we’ve pointed out before, Glen St. Mary and Macclenny should have merged years ago. There’s no practical reason, other than Glen residents don’t want to pay property taxes, that two separate entities that for all purposes border each other need to exist.

Glen St. Mary is running out of cash reserves, so it will force the property tax option, either with consolidation or remaining independent, in the near future anyway.

Should the town and city merge, the next step would be the folding of the combined Macclenny-Glen entity into a central county government with a single elected board.

Here’s the rub. Macclenny has trash collection, a water and sewer system (Glen piggybacks somewhat on the sewer portion) and other less vital departments that the county does not. Is it fair to eliminate city taxes and place the burden for them on all county taxpayers?

No, but since we’re talking about special fees and assessments (above property taxes as a way of reducing deficits that most assuredly will be with us next year), how about eliminating property taxes for those in the former Macclenny limits and replacing them with “fees for service.”

Properly managed, the fees would not exceed what city taxpayers are charged now. Ideally, they would be less.

Rub number two, of course, is the elimination of governing boards in Macclenny and Glen St. Mary, along with jobs in fire and road departments. No doubt some jobs would be lost (that’s the point), but the phase-out could be structured via attrition (not replacing retirees) in many areas since added workers in specialized services like sewer and water will still be needed.

Baker County at less than 28,000 people (and that includes prisons and the state hospital) is the ideal size for consolidation, and taxpayers should demand the effort go forward. The catalyst, for sure, is the crisis we’re likely to face for years to come. Government must become more efficient and, yes, shrink from its present size.

Since Baker County property taxes are relatively low compared to other counties in Florida, most taxpayers probably wouldn’t mind forking over what they pay now or perhaps a modest increase to retain services.

For those opting out of property taxes because of decreased land values and exemptions — or both — fees in lieu of taxes for vital services are reasonable.

But what everyone must see is government operating efficiently and as long as three separate entities remain it’s doubtful we’re running as lean as possible.

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