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City Talk: Police merger debate reveals deeper tensions

When Mayor Eddie DeLoach and three new members of City Council took office 18 months ago, many Savannahians assumed that we were on a slow hike toward consolidation of the city and county governments.

On Friday, Savannah City Council voted overwhelmingly to end the city-county police merger, a marriage fraught with problems for years.

I’m not going to try to recap the politics or the policy problems in this short column. Suffice to say that we are all aware of the potential advantages of a consolidated police department and of greater consolidation of other government functions.

In theory, a single government could deliver services more efficiently and less expensively.

In theory, a merged police department would be able to optimize enforcement strategies.

Like many readers, I’m sympathetic to those arguments, but developments over the past few years have pointed to all sorts of trouble if we move toward city-county consolidation.

And I’m not just talking about the recent disagreements between Savannah and Chatham County officials about how much county residents should pay for police services.

Underlying the arguments about costs are deeper divisions about policy, even lifestyle.

Certainly, residents within Savannah’s city limits and residents of unincorporated Chatham County share many broad concerns, but that doesn’t mean they share the same policy priorities.

Again, the differences go beyond law enforcement.

Folks who live in unincorporated Chatham County have chosen more suburban lifestyles, and those of us who live in the city limits have chosen more urban lifestyles. This is just an observation, not a moral judgment.

I obviously haven’t conducted a formal survey, both those different lifestyle choices seem to correlate with some markedly different opinions about how best to address issues related not only to law enforcement, but also to traffic, transit, zoning and other key governmental functions.

It’s interesting to consider how many of these disagreements are somehow related to cars. Like many other urban residents, I own a car but favor policies that make it easier not to use it. Many suburban residents want policies that prioritize driving.

Maybe we would be better off in the long run if we ripped off the adhesive strip and merged the city and county governments entirely. That would force cooperation on a variety of issues and force us to come to consensus on ways to address our biggest challenges, including crime.

On the other hand, bigger bureaucracies are not necessarily better ones.

Local officials might yet salvage the police merger, but that won’t make the underlying tensions disappear.

City Talk appears every Sunday and Tuesday. Bill Dawers can be reached via billdawers@comcast.net. Send mail to 10 E. 32nd St., Savannah, Ga. 31401.

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