Payne City mulls consolidation again

Finances, historic standards, election logistics complicate choice

jgaines@macon.comDecember 11, 2013 

There’s general agreement among the top elected officials of Macon, Bibb County and Payne City about what should eventually happen to the tiny community that’s completely surrounded by the coming consolidated government, but how to get there remains uncertain.

Macon Mayor Robert Reichert, who is mayor-elect of the new Macon-Bibb government, proposes that Payne City give up its incorporated status and join its larger neighbor. It could still retain its identity by becoming a historic district. But while Reichert started the discussion, it’s not his decision, he said.

“I see the next steps as really being taken by the residents of Payne City,” he said.

Reichert does hope Payne City’s officials will “entertain additional discussions” among residents on the subject. He said the Georgia Department of Community Affairs already has offered to talk about creating a historic district there in place of the independent city.

“I wouldn’t mind at all,” Payne City Mayor Grace McCrimmons said. “I’d like for it to be consolidated, you know, so I’m all for it myself.”

Details of the historic status of Payne City depends in large part on whether the hoped-for designation is a local district, created by an ordinance, or if it’s listed in the National Register of Historic Places, said Lynn Speno, National Register specialist at the Georgia Department of Natural Resources’ Historic Preservation Division.

“Local districts have a lot more regulations than national historic districts,” she said.

The state summarizes the difference as “a National Register district identifies; a local district protects.” Speno said a National Register listing would give access to tax credits for historic renovation, while a locally created district could set rules for exterior changes to buildings in the area.

The character of Payne City’s houses might bear on that decision, she said.

“If it’s mostly rental, that can be a problem, because the whole idea is that it gives homeowners tax incentives to rehabilitate their homes,” Speno said.

And that is the case. There are just 94 parcels of property in all of Payne City, according to the Macon-Bibb County Board of Tax Assessors. Eighty-two of those appear to be residential parcels. Most of the rest are part of a commercial strip between Roff Avenue and the Norfolk Southern train tracks.

Of those residential parcels, just 10 are owner-occupied, according to tax records. Most of the rest are owned by residents in places such as Macon, Warner Robins and Byron.

The incorporated city has an estimated 218 residents, but McCrimmons said there are just 70 registered voters. In the July 2012 consolidation referendum nearly 33,000 Macon and Bibb County residents voted, while only 16 people did so in Payne City -- and they voted it down 9-7.

The Dec. 2 public meeting with Reichert drew about two dozen people, but a number of them said they were property owners but not residents.

Two other issues might complicate the choice for residents, owners and renters alike: a looming lawsuit, and how to make the decision at all.

Since at least 2007, Geneva-based MedSafe LLC has talked about building a medical-waste treatment plant on 2 acres in Payne City at 136 Rose Ave., owned by Ken Taylor, of Milledgeville. That’s adjacent to Freedom Park.

Initial response from the city indicated that the plant complied with local land-use plan criteria, but in September 2011 the Payne City Council voted to deny the application.

MedSafe filed a lawsuit in July 2012, a case that’s still making its way through Superior Court.

Payne City’s response, filed in September 2012, specifically says Payne City expects to merge with Macon-Bibb County. It includes worries from Macon that the roads past Freedom Park couldn’t handle the expected truck traffic.

The lawsuit already has been expensive for the tiny city, McCrimmons said. The main source of revenue is a charge for use of the city water system, plus a few business licenses, she said.

“With both of them combined, (the city budget) might be $30,000 or something like that, or maybe a little more,” McCrimmons said.

Macon-Bibb County, with an expected budget of $280 million and a legal team of its own, could bring huge resources to bear in that suit. But McCrimmons said the possibility of such help is not a consideration for her in the merger decision; and Reichert said he hadn’t considered what assistance the new government might offer.

To dissolve the Payne City charter at this point would take action by the Georgia General Assembly, which is likely to act only if the local legislative delegation agrees. In February, the opposition of state Rep. James Beverly, D-Macon, killed a move to dissolve Payne City. Beverly, who represents the area, said he wanted to respect the will of the residents who had voted, albeit narrowly, to reject consolidation.

He still feels that way, and it would take a clear expression of community will to change that, Beverly said.

“By and large, I think it’s probably going to have to go to a referendum again,” he said.

But elections are expensive, and the first election when such a vote could be synchronized to save money -- a rematch for the District 2 Macon-Bibb commission seat -- probably won’t occur until mid-January. That’s the same time the General Assembly session starts, so logistically it would be hard to do by then, Beverly said.

But if Payne City officials really want to get it done while saving taxpayer money on a new election, Beverly would be “fairly comfortable” with a petition signed by a majority of residents, he said.

To contact writer Jim Gaines, call 744-4489.

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