For the first time in a generation, Bibb County voters will head to the polls July 31 to vote on a proposal to consolidate Macon and Bibb County. The issue has raised plenty of questions and fueled strong opinions both for and against the measure.
Here, we try to answer some of the main questions about consolidation, edited for space, that Telegraph readers submitted.
Previous Telegraph stories on consolidation and documents important to the issue, including the consolidation legislation approved by the General Assembly that launched the referendum, are also available. Links to those are available through www.macon.com/elections.
I need a good, neutral summary on consolidation and what changes would occur if approved. -- Chris Harris
At the most basic level, consolidation is about getting one government to represent all of Bibb County. The current county government, along with those of Macon and Payne City, would be abolished. A new government, led by a mayor and nine county commissioners, would take over. The politicians would be picked in partisan elections and have term limits. Policing efforts would be led by the sheriff. A supermajority of six of the nine commissioners would be required to pass the budget or hold a meeting. Government departments would merge, and most boards and authorities would get reorganized. A transition team led by a state legislator would begin work this fall if the measure passes, but the actual government wouldnt be elected until November 2013, and the consolidated government would be seated in 2014.
If passed, wouldnt utility rates increase for those outside the city? -- Noel Goode, Macon
Yes, the new government likely would approve franchising agreements to create a government surcharge on utility bills such as those for electricity. Macon residents generally pay higher franchise fees for these services. Supporters have estimated that franchise fees would bring an additional $6 million to the new government.
City residents would have to pay off some of the citys debt. Isnt there some debt not addressed by the plan that could burden those outside the city as well? -- Noel Goode, Macon
Section 21 of the legislation mandates a special tax district for city residents to pay off Macons general obligation bonded indebtedness. However, money from a special purpose local option sales tax passed in November is slated to pay off most of that debt. The legislation does not address other forms of obligations, such as costs to close the landfill. The last city audit showed net costs of other post-employment benefits -- things such as health care for retirees -- total $26.2 million. Landfill closing costs were estimated at $9.2 million, but millions of dollars from the Macon Water Authority will defray some of those costs.
Anything in the consolidation agreement about sanitation pickup? -- Keith Bryant, south Bibb County
The first draft of the bill had the citys sanitation workers and equipment picking up garbage countywide. But Section 11 of the bill that actually passed says the government is empowered to provide for the collection of residential solid waste throughout Macon-Bibb County. It doesnt say how or whether trash pickup has to be provided.
Arent the people voting on this issue all from Bibb County? Do both Bibb County and Macon have to approve consolidation for it to pass, or does it mean that a majority of votes one way or the other will be enough for it to pass? -- Tom Saul, Perry
Section 40 says that for consolidation to pass, a majority of voters from Macon and a majority of voters from all of Bibb County must approve it. Macon residents votes are counted twice.
I live in Bibb Countys unincorporated area. What is my tax before consolidation and what would the tax be when consolidation is passed? -- Tom Moore
Theres nothing certain, because it depends on what assumptions you make about the transition team, the new government, how portions of the legislation will be interpreted regarding government expenditure cuts, and whether you consider government fees on utilities to be a tax. (This was explored in greater depth in a previous story, available on macon.com.)
Will all residents pay the same taxes and have the same millage rate? -- Sharee Walker
In theory, they should be pretty close after consolidation begins, and it may be the same in a few years. As discussed earlier, Macons bonded indebtedness must be paid off by Macon residents, with all debts paid by July 2019.
There is a word of caution, however: Section 24 allows the new government to create special services tax districts, with no restriction on the districts scale. State law says services offered in those districts could include different levels of fire and police protection, trash collection, animal control, road maintenance and parks.
Will the commission have control of the school board budget and its expenditures? -- Jack Grimsley, Macon
Section 28 sets the procedures for the school board budget, which tells its tax rate to the county government. A 22-mill cap on the school budget would remain in place. Donald Porter, a school system spokesman, said he doesnt anticipate any differences if consolidation passes.
What effect would consolidation have on a black majority of elected officials? -- Noel Goode, Macon
Thatd depend on who gets elected, of course, but we can look at the racial composition of election districts. At present, Macon City Council has a slight black majority, eight of the 15 members. The Bibb County Commission also has a black majority, three of the five members. Macon Mayor Robert Reichert is white. So with those two governments, 11 of 21 positions are held by blacks. A Telegraph analysis of the consolidation map shows that, according to 2010 census data, five of the nine commission districts would have black voting-age populations of at least 61 percent. The other four districts would have have white voting-age populations of at least 62 percent. The mayor would be elected countywide. The latest U.S. Census Bureau population puts the county at 52.5 percent black.
There seems to be great financial support in favor of consolidation. Who is footing the bills? -- Noel Goode, Macon
State ethics reports from pro-consolidation group Macon-Bibb Wins Again are supposed to be filed by July 23.
No other consolidated government has achieved the 20-percent reduction in government over five years, and a consolidated government can override the provision. What happens if they dont? Is there an automatic unconsolidating to take place? Is a citizen lawsuit feasible? If its not possible, why pretend such cuts are to get an affirmative vote? -- Rick Hutto, Macon
The Telegraph reported on financial implications July 15, looking at some of these issues, including cuts called for in Section 23. The author of that provision, state Sen. Cecil Staton, R-Macon, said the 20-percent cuts are feasible, but he cant identify areas to be cut. No provision for unconsolidation is in the bill. Staton cautioned that governments abusing the override for extreme economic circumstances or for public safety purposes could be called on it by state legislators.
If people dont follow the law, it can be changed, Staton told The Telegraph. He said residents could also file suit to enforce the cuts, but he couldnt estimate how much that might cost out of pocket.
Critics say the cuts -- roughly $31 million -- are impossible. The July 15 story noted assumptions and uncertainties about finances.
Isnt it true that of the three consolidated governments touted by proponents -- Augusta and Richmond County, Columbus and Muscogee County, and Athens and Clarke County -- only one is a truly complete union of the county? -- Noel Goode, Macon
Proponents have talked about other consolidation efforts, such as in Jacksonville, Fla. But, yes, those Georgia counties get talked about the most. Theyre roughly comparable in size, and only one is completely unified. Per the Georgia Department of Revenue, Clarke, Muscogee and Richmond counties no longer have unincorporated areas. Richmond County retains the independent cities of Hephzibah and Blythe as well as Augusta. Clarke County retains Winterville and part of Bogart as well as Athens. Columbus and Muscogee County are one and the same.
If consolidation passes, Macon and Payne City would cease to exist. The small portion of Macon thats in Jones County would be deannexed. See Section 1 and Section 38 of the legislation.
To contact writer Mike Stucka, call 744-4251.