Bibb County voters will decide on a 1-cent sales tax referendum Nov. 8, but one element of it has vast implications for all of Middle Georgia.
The $190 million proposal includes $6 million to buy up homes north of Robins Air Force Base in what the Department of Defense considers an area at risk for crashes and high noise. The issue is generally referred to as encroachment.
Approval would give the first major funding source to buy up the homes in the targeted area, an initiative estimated to cost between $18 million and $24 million. That includes 125 homes where the owners have agreed to sell and some others where the owners have not yet agreed. Resolving the problem, supporters say, is significant for protecting jobs at Robins.
As the Department of Defense is coping with substantial budget cuts with potentially more on the way, the prospect of losing missions is real, even without a Base Realignment and Closure Commission, supporters say.
Approval of the sales tax is vital, said MaryTherese Tebbe, executive director of the 21st Century Partnership, a community organization that supports the base. When the Air Force looks at consolidating or realigning missions, she said, Robins is at a disadvantage because of the encroachment issue.
The Air Force’s other two maintenance depots at Hill Air Force Base, Utah, and Tinker Air Force, Okla., do not have encroachment problems. Encroachment is a significant factor when the Air Force is making decisions about locating missions, Tebbe said.
“Clearly, if the voters say ‘yes,’ they will essentially be taking care of the encroachment issue, and that’s a huge win for Middle Georgia,” she said.
Although more funding will be needed, the $6 million will allow the process of buying properties to begin full force, said Chan Layson, who works for the Central Georgia Joint Development Authority and is spearheading the buying.
Ten homes have been purchased using Department of Defense money, and they are applying for more Department of Defense funds.
Additionally, Houston County may include encroachment funding in a new sales tax. County Commission Chairman Tommy Stalnaker said he expects the commission in a few weeks to decide whether to call for a new special purpose local option sales tax when the current one expires next year. Making encroachment funding a part of that will be a serious consideration, with as much or more funding as in the Bibb sales tax.
“I hope the people in Bibb County will understand the impact of bringing closure to the encroachment issue,” Stalnaker said. “It’s going to have a huge impact if something isn’t done to make that problem go away.”
Bibb and Houston counties additionally have agreed to put $100,000 per year toward the encroachment issue.
Chip Cherry, president of the Greater Macon Chamber of Commerce, said approval of the sales tax is also important to homeowners in the encroachment area. They have been in limbo for years, and Cherry said he talked to one homeowner who said he feels like he is living in a rented home because the uncertainty means he can’t make any improvements.
“I don’t think people realize how sensitive this is,” Cherry said. “It’s just the right thing to do for the people who live down there because basically we have upset their lives.”
To contact writer Wayne Crenshaw, call 256-9705.