EDITORIAL: One budget down, but the balancing act continues

July 2, 2014 

It may go down in history as the shortest Macon-Bibb County Commission meeting of all time. The final vote on the consolidated government’s first budget was over in less than 10 minutes. The quick outcome masks the back and forth that had taken place since the mayor first revealed his preliminary budget May 13. The mayor and commissioners got more than an earful from constituencies from the Museum of Arts and Sciences, the Tubman African American Museum, the Douglass Theatre, paratransit and the Medical Center, all of which received steep cuts and elimination of all county funding. There were several other agencies that faced the ax as well.

The budget was sent back to the Operations and Finance Committee for more work and then there was a public hearing that strained the capacity of the Government Center’s auditorium. In the end, the budget passed with most of the funding restored. What an exercise. Sausage making at its best isn’t pretty.

This budget does accomplish one of Mayor Robert Reichert’s priorities to equalize city and county taxes. It cuts the disparity in property taxes by half in the city and next year’s budget will cut the other half. However, there are unavoidable forces that will make that desire more complicated.

The consolidation legislation mandates the budget be reduced by 5 percent per year over a four year period. There is a legal way out of that requirement if cutting the budget would impact public safety. During the next legislative session, as they make other adjustments to the consolidation law, they might as well take that tax reduction stipulation out. Here’s what’s on the horizon.

• Juvenile Justice Center will open, and while they will try to operate it with existing personnel, the skill sets needed for such a facility may have to be hired.

• By next year, two new fire stations will come on line, one in west Macon and the other in east Macon. Additional firefighters will have to be employed. While the SPLOST can pay for the facility and equipment, those funds cannot be used for operational expenses.

• And the long awaited Animal Welfare shelter will have to be budgeted for with its opening.

While the mayor and commission put this budget battle behind them, there is another battle royal being set for next year’s budget on how to balance the needs and wants of the county’s constituents, the consolidation legislation and taxes.

There is a painless way out of this ever-devolving morass. We have to halt the slide in population and begin to grow the area again. Easier said than done.

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