Things are looking up for Macon and Bibb County, Mayor Robert Reichert and Commission Chairman Sam Hart said Wednesday.
They gave an upbeat assessment of the coming year to the annual joint meeting of the Macon, Uptown and Downtown Rotary clubs, held in the Monument Room of the Macon Coliseum.
Reichert judged the local mood to be optimistic, based largely on voters’ approval in November of the special purpose local option sales tax.
The SPLOST vote was “the big one,” the past year’s central issue that will free up the city and county for many improvements, Hart said.
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Paying off debts with SPLOST funds should spare the county $1.9 million in required spending per year, he said.
“Certainly it ought to be something we could pass on to citizens in terms of tax savings,” Hart said.
The approved SPLOST project list includes $3 million for Animal Control, one of the city departments that’s transferring to the county as of July 1.
“That means we’ll be building a new facility,” said Hart, who is seeking expert advice on a new shelter’s features.
The SPLOST list includes $6 million to buy land around Robins Air Force Base to help fight the encroachment problem. Houston County is putting up $7 million, and the state may contribute $8 million for the same purpose, Hart said. That combined sum should buy enough land to give Robins, a major employer, an advantage in the next round of possible base closings, he said.
As part of the service delivery deal that hinged on SPLOST passage, the county is scheduled to take over the city’s recreation centers July 1. Those aging buildings are getting substantial repairs with SPLOST money, but the county needs a project manager to assess their condition and potential uses, Hart said.
”The truth is, we don’t know exactly how much we’ll spend on recreation activity,” he said.
Answering questions from the crowd, Hart said local officials have to keep the public’s confidence that SPLOST money is being well spent, so voters will support another SPLOST in just under six years.
Reichert said the “oversight or advisory committee” will watch SPLOST money as it comes in, make sure projects are built as promised and make regular public reports. Hart agreed and said lack of transparency and follow-through would destroy officials’ credibility.
“This is our report card,” Hart said.
A closely-watched current issue is the transfer of about 100 city employees to the county. Five city departments are moving as part of the service delivery deal.
Reichert and Hart both said they expect the transferred employees to be treated “fairly and equitably.”
What that means remained largely undefined, especially when it comes to retirement benefits. It will take an actuarial study to figure out what the county pension funds can afford, Hart said.
“We are prepared to make this thing work, and we are doing it without a tax increase,” he said.
Officials know that the department transfer will be viewed as a dry run for city-county consolidation, and it must be done right to inspire confidence for such a merger, Reichert said.
He said a successful consolidation bill is closer than ever, and a plan could come before voters in late 2012.
Steve Schwartz, president of the Downtown Rotary Club, asked if that could make Reichert “the last mayor of Macon.”
That could be, Reichert said.
“If you had a vote in 2012 and both the county as a whole and the city both approve the charter, then I understand the actual election of your new commission would take place in 2013,” he said.
To contact writer Jim Gaines, call 744-4489.