Five days after the Bibb County Commission chairman sent a letter to Macon City Hall threatening to cut the city out of negotiations for a proposed sales tax agreement, the mayor asked City Council to unite behind him.
Mayor Robert Reichert is demanding an agreement with the county on a service delivery strategy before signing off on a special purpose local option sales tax agreement, which the county is trying to push through for a July vote. The county says the service delivery strategy can wait until the SPLOST issue is settled. The SPLOST, if approved by voters, would generate $183 million and would pay for various projects, chiefly a new county courthouse.
Reichert’s insistence on having a new service delivery strategy in place is because he says city residents pay a disproportionate amount of taxes for services. Meanwhile, the city — which had to lay off 31 workers in January — faces an uphill budget battle.
“We have been carrying the county on our backs for decades,” he told the council.
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During a presentation to the council Tuesday, Reichert used marbles to show how — because of the current service delivery strategy that decides how the two governments spend tax money on services — the city’s residents pay a “disproportionate amount” of taxes.
Since taxes from city residents make up half the county’s general fund, city residents pay 75 percent of the cost for services such as planning and zoning, even though the city and the county split the cost, he said.
In other words, if the city and county each paid $50,000 to an organization, in reality $75,000 comes from the pockets of city residents, Reichert said.
The mayor insists there are multiple instances of tax inequities between city and county taxpayers.
For instance, city residents pay for half of the county’s Engineering Department, but that department only operates in the county. The same goes for the county’s roads program, the mayor said.
“What I’m after is tax relief for the citizens of the city of Macon,” he said.
As the April 30 SPLOST agreement deadline drew nearer, Reichert said, the county no longer wanted to discuss the service delivery strategy.
“Guess who picked up their marbles and went home,” the mayor said rhetorically.
Two weeks ago Macon hired Atlanta attorney Buddy Welch to continue service delivery strategy negotiations with the county. Welch then sent a letter to county commissioners asking for a meeting, which has been set for March 31, Reichert said.
Councilman Mike Cranford has been a part of those negotiations from the start and called Hart’s assertion that the city had not submitted its SPLOST wish list “disingenuous.”
“We agreed on everything that needed to be a part of the SPLOST,” Cranford said, adding that the breakdown only came when the county wanted to pursue $20 million in SPLOST money to build new recreation centers in the unincorporated area.
Reichert said the city’s problem with the county creating a new recreation department is that the operating cost largely would fall on the shoulders of city residents.
Council members’ attitudes about the mayor’s insistence on getting a service delivery strategy in place before a SPLOST agreement is hammered out were somewhat mixed Tuesday.
Councilman Tom Ellington suggested a partial agreement, while Councilman Rick Hutto called the mayor’s strategy “playing a game of chicken.” Councilwoman Elaine Lucas said she wants to “safeguard what’s at stake” with the SPLOST. Lucas said she wants to see the tax passed, urging “egos to get out of the way.”
Reichert said he has never threatened Hart with ruining the SPLOST vote, but that he couldn’t sign off on a SPLOST agreement without a service delivery strategy in place.
Macon Chief Administrative Officer Thomas Thomas said the county cannot decide what the city’s projects will be, but can create categories for SPLOST money to be distributed.
“I refuse to believe that anyone will vote for a SPLOST knowing the City Council hasn’t signed off on the agreement,” Thomas said.
Council President Miriam Paris stressed that the council must stick together for the good of the city’s residents.
“We have carried (the county’s) burden too long,” Paris said. “They want that courthouse more than kids at Christmas, and they’re doing everything they can to make that happen. It is very important that we stay unified on this issue. It is their intent to pull the rug out from under us.”
The mayor pointed out that when the city’s share of the sales tax was reduced from 80 percent to 60 percent in December 2002, the city did not insist on a renegotiated service delivery strategy.
That means the county began receiving 40 percent of the sales tax but was providing for services as if it were still only receiving 20 percent of the sales tax.
Councilman Alveno Ross said the city’s elected officials at the time are to blame. Ross was a city councilman in 2002.
“They sold us down the tube,” he said. “We did it to ourselves.”
The current service delivery strategy dates back to 2006, was last adopted by the city in August 2007 and was set to expire Dec. 31, 2008, until it was extended by former Bibb County Commission Chairman Charlie Bishop to October 2010.
The mayor said he is hopeful the March 31 meeting between Welch and county commissioners will go well. Their attitude, he said, will determine how the city proceeds.
Reichert said he hopes the county wants to move forward with the city. There is still time to get the service delivery strategy ironed out so it is “fair and equitable” to Macon residents, he said.
If the county is willing to work with the city to settle the service delivery strategy issue, the city will “be on their timeline” for the SPLOST agreement.
“Both Chairman Hart and I are committed to keeping open communication,” Reichert said. “We can work this out, and we will work this out.”
Council members Erick Erickson, Lonnie Miley and Charles Jones were not present for the work session.
To contact writer Chris Horne, call 744-4494.