ATLANTA — If state Rep. Allen Peake’s push to speed up Macon and Bibb County consolidation is going to go anywhere, he’s got a lot of work to do.
His fellow local legislators don’t share his zeal for the issue, and it’s not just Democrats he must convince. State Sen. Cecil Staton, a Macon Republican, said he has more questions than answers when it comes to merging the two governments — a position shared by several local legislators as they huddled Wednesday at the Capitol.
“I need to be convinced that this will be a value,” Staton said.
At issue is whether consolidation really would save taxpayers money. Some say yes and some say no, pointing to expensive city-county mergers in other parts of the state. And if, as some believe, a Macon-Bibb merger will simply slow the increase of local government spending, “that’s not good enough for me,” Staton said.
Staton and other legislators — particularly state Rep. Bubber Epps, D-Dry Branch — said they need to know more about Macon and Bibb County’s finances. Is the city really in danger of going broke, forcing consolidation, as Peake fears? Will unincorporated residents simply face higher taxes but receive few or no new services if a merger goes through?
The group agreed to ask Macon Mayor Robert Reichert and Bibb County Commission Chairman Sam Hart, as well as their finance officers, to meet Jan. 22.
The state Legislature, in session now at the Capitol, should be in a lull that day, and the meeting would be held in Macon.
Hart and Reichert have backed a relatively rapid merger of the two governments even as they work to merge individual departments one-by-one. That’s a strategy state Rep. David Lucas, D-Macon, is backing, saying taxpayers need to see the two governments working together before they’ll approve a full merger in a countywide referendum, which the Legislature would have to call.
That’s the position his wife, Councilwoman Elaine Lucas, holds as well, and she developed a 10-year consolidation plan that has passed the City Council and County Commission.
State Rep. Nikki Randall, D-Macon, said voters are going to ask a very simple question when it comes to consolidation, and no one seems sure of the answer.
“What’s the major benefit for me and my household?” she said.
Wednesday’s meeting included Peake, Staton, Lucas, Epps and Randall, as well as state Sen. Robert Brown, D-Macon.
The group also discussed an ongoing effort to increase the local sales tax on hotel and motel stays by a penny to help fund the Douglass Theatre in downtown Macon, as well as the Georgia sports and music halls of fame. A similar effort hit a political wall last year when the delegation was unable to agree, but legislators seem to be united on the issue this year.
However, a technical problem has arisen and an attorney from the Legislature sat in on Wednesday’s meeting. Basically, the situation may be more complicated than legislators thought, and some legislative maneuvering may be needed to make sure the increase complies with complicated state laws dealing with these taxes.
But the bottom line, attorney Jeff Lanier told The Telegraph, is that the issues are “not insurmountable” and, assuming various spending splits add up like local legislators have said they do, “we should be fine.”
Said Lucas: “We’ll get it worked out.”
To contact writer Travis Fain, call 361-2702.