The Macon-Bibb County Commission came to a consensus Tuesday to issue $35 million in bonds for special purpose sales tax projects.
Tuesday’s discussions did not include a vote on bonds. Instead, officials said they were comfortable with the $35 million amount as they aim to continue work on more projects in 2017. Along with the bonds, Macon-Bibb County is expected to collect about $80 million in new sales tax revenue from April 2018 through 2020.
That would mean commissioners could have about $115 million to spend during this term in office, although some projects would not start until after 2020.
Mayor Robert Reichert said Tuesday was a launching point as officials try to give some flexibility with the sales tax initiative to future commissioners. At the current annual tax collection rate, it would take a little under 10 years to bring in the $280 million.
“We’re trying to be intentional, trying to plan ahead,” Reichert said at the Macon-Bibb retreat in Athens. “But we’re trying to predict what happens six, eight, nine years from now, and we don’t know what’s going to happen tomorrow.”
The county could issue up to $100 million in bonds, but the higher amount would mean more interest to pay off. Sales tax revenue cannot be used to repay the bonds.
Commissioners also began prioritizing about 40 SPLOST projects on Tuesday. The top five projects were storm-water repairs, debt retirement, airport improvements, Bass Road enhancements and an upgraded Macon-Bibb County Health Department building.
“This is a good starting point, but we’re not wed to this,” Commissioner Elaine Lucas said.
Some of those projects will move up and down the list in upcoming months and years. For instance, while Bass Road ranked third, the project is still contingent on some state funding. Also, a $40 million courthouse renovation — the largest price tag on the SPLOST list — is a federally mandated project, meaning it may jump other projects.
“There’s a balancing act with dollars that if we push (a project) to the front, we have to push something to the back,” SPLOST manager Clay Murphey said.
During the retreat, county officials said they would deal with a $10 million SPLOST revenue shortfall and $6 million owed in bond payments by delaying some storm-water repairs and debt payments.
Macon-Bibb County officials broached ideas for dealing with budget woes during the retreat.
Suggestions included having Macon-Bibb employees invest into their pension plans and a larger percent into health care, as well as reducing funds given to some outside agencies. The discussion comes in the wake of declining revenues that forced the county to use $8 million in reserves in the most recent fiscal year.
The county has been able to reduce the budget by more than 20 percent since consolidating in 2014, but the next budget cycle means finding new revenues or reducing expenses further, officials said.
The county is spending about $12 million a year to support other services such as the regional library, Transit Authority and Bibb County Department of Family and Children Services.
“The biggest numbers are obligations that I don’t see we as a responsible government could even entertain not doing,” Commissioner Virgil Watkins said.
Macon-Bibb’s expenses are showing signs of flattening out, but there’s not enough in reserves to continue covering shortfalls, county officials said.
Also, motor vehicle taxes have declined from $5.3 million to about $3 million over a three year period.
“Our property values are not rising at the rate that motor vehicle (tax) is dropping off,” said Julie Moore, assistant county manager for budget and planning.
Part of the financial uncertainty has come due to Macon and Bibb County consolidating, Reichert said.
In an attempt to reduce the budget, the county has cut down its workforce after more than 280 employees accepted early retirements.
“We really have come from a brand-new entity, no history. ... Now we’re about to hit our stride,” Reichert said. “We’re about 3 years old, about to hit a stride where these remarkable (budget) changes are not going to recur.”