Midstate lawmakers take stock as session winds down

mlee@macon.comMarch 16, 2014 

ATLANTA -- For Bibb County, the annual state legislative session has involved several big ideas that didn’t quite get off the ground.

But for Baldwin County, it has meant success in a yearlong struggle to get old Central State properties sold faster.

Macon-Bibb’s eight House and Senate lawmakers started the year about the same time that the city and county united, and everybody knew questions would appear in the new enterprise that would have to be answered under the Gold Dome.

It’s the state Legislature that decides in large part how cities and counties operate and are organized. That includes oversight of quasi-governmental agencies that do things like finance economic development deals and run the public water system.

Some of that work didn’t get done.

“The only thing that I regret that we didn’t get to was looking at the boards and authorities, ... because that’s what we told the people we were going to do,” said state Rep. Nikki Randall, D-Macon, the county’s senior House member.

“But the majority of the delegation decided to postpone it,” she said, adding that she strongly objected to the delay.

Five local development authorities operate in Macon-Bibb.

Macon Republican state Rep. Allen Peake supported postponement. “The decision to hold off on the authorities, I think, was a good one, just to give us time to breathe,” he said.

State Rep. James Beverly, D-Macon, put boards and authorities on notice. He looks forward to investigating what they do and what rules they follow.

He started the year calling on the Fort Hawkins Commission to disband. The commission is an all-volunteer body that usually gets no public money. But in 2012, voters approved sending $750,000 of sales tax proceeds to the historic site for a visitors center and other work.

Beverly was mad because the commission bid out some specialty tasks, but it didn’t seek bids for for the general contractor job, which the bulk of the money went for.

“We can’t have another Fort Hawkins happen,” he said.

Beverly also pledged to return to his quest for an additional homestead property tax exemption of $30,000 for the lowest-income owner-occupiers in Macon-Bibb.

His House Bill 893 asks for a public referendum on granting that exemption for those low-income families in homes valued at $85,000 or less. It’s meant to keep long-term residents in gentrifying neighborhoods such as the College Hill area.

Macon’s two senators, one Democrat and one Republican, both said they like his idea but that it’s a bad time to cut more money from Macon-Bibb’s budget while the government is making consolidation-mandated cuts already.

The cost would be something less than $3 million annually. Beverly puts it at about $1 million annually.

“I will absolutely do it again next year,” Beverly said of his proposal.

It’s an election year for all state lawmakers, however, so the pledges will hold only if they are re-elected.

A handful of modest bills have no obvious obstacle to passage before the Legislature’s closing day March 20.

Under Senate Bill 366 by state Sen. David Lucas, D-Macon, the Macon Water Authority is allowed to operate with one judge-appointed member, so that a sudden vacancy does not trigger a special election for what might be a very short term.

House Bill 896 by Beverly slightly expands the footprint of the Macon-Bibb Community Enhancement Authority beyond the poorest census tracts to certain poor neighboring tracts.

Randall’s HB 1097 ratifies a Macon-Bibb decision to authorize a self-taxing community improvement district around Macon Mall.

But Payne City remains outside Macon-Bibb. Beverly said he has seen no indication that the “majority of people plus one” in the enclave want to join the county that surrounds them.

Central State selling

Over in Baldwin County, the Central State Hospital Local Redevelopment Authority is waiting for the governor to sign House Bill 495, by the late state Rep. Calvin Hill, R-Canton, which would enable them to fast-track certain property sales on the old campus.

Authority Executive Director Mike Couch has been to the Capitol so many times to work on the proposal that the parking deck must recognize his debit card, he said.

The bill “gives us the mechanism to deal straight with the State Properties Commission” to sell or lease out properties appraised at less than $500,000 instead of having to wait on the Legislature’s approval of each one, Couch said.

Usually the Legislature must approve big sales, but they meet just 40 days at the beginning of each year -- something that adds a lot of time to any transaction.

What Couch is trying to find tenants for is some 2,000 acres and scores of separate buildings, including the old Rivers State Prison, Scott State Prison and Men’s State Prison in Baldwin County.

The Authority has already lined up consultants with CRE, a national organization of property advisers, to help it figure out how to market the properties, once the bill is inked.

“They’ll come in late May or early June to try and make a master strategic marketing plan,” Couch said.

He added that some buildings may not be worth keeping, but “we believe the streetscape around the historic quad is critical to maintain.”

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