Bibb County Commission Chairman Sam Hart has a mantra: “Think community.”
As Macon and Bibb County merge into a new government by January, it will take a conciliator to meld city and county, urban and rural, he said.
“And that’s what I do well,” said Hart, 71. He’s running for mayor of the new government, and that office will work with the nine new commissioners much as the county government functions now, he said.
The community must unite to deal with crime, education and the need for jobs, Hart said.
“All those things are sort of tied together,” he said.
Originally from Monroe County, Hart has lived in Macon for more than 45 years, he said. He worked as a science teacher, first in Pulaski County and then in Bibb, before arriving at Mercer University as the Upward Bound coordinator. After 32 years he retired from Mercer as associate dean of students and director of special programs, he said.
He ran for the county commission in 1996 when District 1 Commissioner Albert Billingslea decided not to seek another term, Hart said. After a three-way primary race he won a runoff, then beat a Republican challenger, he said. Hart served for a decade, then moved to be closer to his grandchildren, he said.
“I resigned because I moved out of my district,” Hart said. Two years later, however, he ran for commission chairman and was re-elected in 2012.
Hart said he’s had a “major hand” in attracting several big employers, negotiating a service delivery deal between the city and county, and convincing voters to pass a 1 percent special purpose local option sales tax that’s expected to raise $190 million in six years.
“I think I really led the work on that one by actually having community involvement early on by seeing what citizens would buy, what they would support,” he said of the SPLOST. But he considers his main achievement to be collaborating with neighboring officials to protect jobs at Robins Air Force Base.
“The one thing I feel extremely good about is the fact that I worked with Houston County and Peach County to get us toward that encroachment issue,” Hart said. Encroachment is nearby development which can limit a military base’s uses. Local officials bought land around Robins to prevent any such problems.
Hart said that collaborative outlook is what distinguishes him from Macon Mayor Robert Reichert, with whom he agrees on most policy points but who is also running for countywide mayor.
“I’m more of a consensus-builder than anyone else in that race,” Hart said. Building a unified government and community won’t be finished in 2014, he said.
“That will be just the beginning,” Hart said. “With a new group of people coming together, working differently, you are again going to need somebody who can fine-tune that engine.”
Hart’s time has not been entirely without controversy, such as his support for the “Macon Miracle” plan of former Bibb County school Superintendent Romain Dallemand. Hart did so out of concern for the high local dropout rate and the impact of education on economic development, not as a specific endorsement of Dallemand, he said. Interim Superintendent Steve Smith is still using much of the plan.
“I heard Dr. Smith talk about it, and like he said -- I think he said it was 90 percent good,” he said. “I don’t dispute that. I think the public relations part got in the way.”
In March 2012, Republican activist and blogger Bill Knowles accused Hart of a conflict of interest related to the Macon Miracle. Knowles said Hart’s tutoring companies S & V Education Systems and the Middle Georgia Center for Academic Excellence got more than $85,000 from the school system over two years. Knowles said that might be an ethical issue but that he didn’t think there was anything illegal about it.
In reply, Hart said he made nothing from the Macon Miracle, and if it succeeded that should actually reduce the need for tutoring services. Knowles’ complaint was a purely political attack, Hart said.
In July 2012, Hart said he didn’t think consolidation would generate big savings without a big cut in personnel. The consolidation charter requires a 20 percent cut to the current total of city and county budgets over five years.
Now Hart is on the task force preparing for that merger and still thinks that reduction will be “very difficult.” But he expects enough of the roughly 2,000 city and county employees will retire or quit to make the needed reduction.
“I think most folk will move over into the new government, but I think they will drop off,” Hart said.
Based on current budgets, about $13.5 million per year needs to be cut beginning with the second year.
Beyond attrition and “rethinking responsibilities” on some jobs, Hart hopes technology upgrades will bring greater efficiency.
Privatization of city and county services “has to be examined,” especially if some urban services expand into the county, Hart said. The county contracts out its garbage collection, and the new government should consider whether to do the same with the city’s in-house service, he said.
“People expect the cost of government to go down, so we’ve got to work to make that happen,” Hart said. “And yet they still want services. They want to feel safe. They want their garbage picked up.”
Private security should be considered for some public facilities, especially if their operation is contracted out, too, he said. As for dealing with crime in general, Hart said he wants to make sure sheriff’s deputies have all the personnel and equipment they need. The biggest emphasis should be on crime prevention, he said.
Hart touted his support for the $7 million juvenile justice center being built in downtown Macon. It’s being paid for with SPLOST funds and will fundamentally change the way young offenders are handled when it opens in late 2014, he said.
But to really make a dent in crime other problems have to be dealt with, such as abandoned housing, he said.
“When the homeownership increases, you see crime go down,” Hart said. Ownership sparks involvement in the community, and redevelopment efforts to encourage that should be concentrated in specific areas, Hart said.
Macon’s dilapidated-house demolition program has struggled to keep pace with the problem, and Hart said it will take massive investment to catch up.
“The only place I know you’ll get sufficient money is if you designate a portion of a SPLOST to doing that,” he said.
The new government should keep giving incentives to attract and keep big employers, but also aid small businesses with talented local graduates, Hart said.
“These are the kinds of folk that will grow our middle class, which I think is important,” he said. Just as important, though, will be encouraging technical training for the area’s high-school dropouts, Hart said. Skilled and semi-skilled jobs are needed to help those who have “fallen through the cracks,” he said.
Tom Wagoner, owner of Core Management Resources, ran against Hart for the chairmanship in 2012. He praised Hart as a good and honorable man who has done a lot for the community.
“But Sam’s never run a business,” Wagoner said. “And running that budget is a business.”
He said he worked closely with Hart during his first three years as chairman but grew so frustrated with Hart’s business decisions that he ran against him for the chairmanship. Hart spent his career in academia, not managing a payroll, Wagoner said.
And the management problem will double for the new mayor, as city and county budgets combine, he said.
County Commissioner Lonzy Edwards said Hart’s great strength is encouraging collaboration.
“He understands better than most people that needless conflict doesn’t get you anywhere,” said Edwards, who’s supporting Hart. “It just keeps you divided and ineffective.”
Hart understands economic development, has managed the county without increasing taxes, and (he) showed in getting money for Robins that he can work well with other officials, he said.
“We talk a lot about consolidation, but I think regionalism is going to be just as important. And one of the worst things that could happen to our community would be to have somebody in the mayor’s office who can’t work with the leaders of the surrounding communities,” Edwards said.
Hart’s work paved the way for much of the progress Macon-Bibb County is now making, he said.
“My sense is that if the team is moving, you don’t change the quarterback,” Edwards said. “If success is being achieved on the field, why change the person who’s calling the plays and running the offense?”
To contact writer Jim Gaines, call 744-4489.