So far, so good. That seems to be the verdict on Macon-Bibb County consolidation after its first year, with the caveat that there are plenty of big challenges ahead.
When 57 percent of Macon and Bibb County voters approved consolidation in July 2012, it was the first time in 17 years that a major Georgia city and county had voted to do so. In Macon and Bibb, it was the fifth attempt since 1933; the last rejection was in 1976.
Backers of consolidation touted it as a money-saving move, reducing redundancy and giving a single government the ability to speak with one voice. Opponents doubted that would happen, predicting that a mandatory cut written into the new government’s charter -- 20 percent of the total general fund over five years -- would prove unrealistic.
The current year’s budget is indeed smaller than the last city and county combined budgets, but that’s a side effect of a consolidation pledge by Macon-Bibb Mayor Robert Reichert to equalize taxation between former city and county residents. The charter didn’t mandate a cut in this first budget year, but removing half the former city’s property tax required belt-tightening.
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That led to a protracted debate at budget time, but in the end, the first consolidated budget passed unanimously.
“I think the one thing that’s a big positive is everyone who’s elected, and everybody who’s associated with it, is trying as hard as they can,” said Commissioner Elaine Lucas. A longtime Macon city councilwoman, Lucas opposed consolidation but won a seat on the new commission.
She still thinks Macon and Bibb weren’t ready to merge, but now that it’s happened, officials have to work to make sure consolidation’s promises are kept, she said.
That attitude of unity is shared across the government, an optimism required by inevitability.
“I think overall the merger has done well,” Bibb County Sheriff David Davis said. “People voted for it, and it was our job to make it work.”
One aid in getting the new government going was the transition task force that worked for 18 months before Macon-Bibb’s Jan. 1, 2014, start date. That and advance preparation by city and county department heads enabled them to “hit the ground running” with no big gaps in service delivery, said Tom Ellington, a former city councilman who opposed consolidation but served on the task force.
“It was smooth enough to have almost been unnoticeable, I think,” he said. “But if it had gone badly, we definitely would have noticed.”
Merging the Macon Police Department with the sheriff’s office was a big hurdle, several officials agreed. Davis said he’s proud of how smoothly former city officers came together with county deputies.
“There have been some little adjustments here and there ... but the basic job is being done,” he said.
Reichert said the constitutional officers, dependent on Macon-Bibb for their budgets but not directly under the new government’s control, have all been very flexible in dealing with office moves and tightened finances. Davis, for example, has often used the jail’s commissary fund for expenses instead of asking commissioners for more money, as he easily could, Reichert said.
One financial bright spot is a predicted uptick in federal funding due to the municipal government’s population jump from Macon’s 91,000 to the 156,000 countywide.
One example is in CDBG/HOME grant funding, which usually declines every year. However, consolidation raised the amount heading to Macon from a previous $1.5 million to nearly $2.2 million, Macon-Bibb spokesman Chris Floore said.
And the structure of the governing body of the new government has helped, several people said.
The change from a five-member county commission, and a 15-member city council and a mayor in the old governments to a 10-member city-county commission that includes the mayor has reduced acrimony, several said. The mayor, who presides over the new commission, does not vote unless there is a tie.
“Because the commission and the mayor have made such a concerted effort to work together on as many projects as we possibly could, I think that people feel better about government,” Lucas said. “There’s more confidence in government as a whole.”
“My impression is that we are light-years ahead of where we were before,” he said. “By the time we get out here in the commission chamber, it’s almost humdrum.”
WORKS IN PROGRESS
The next few months will bring several big issues to a head, most of them financial. Removing the other half of the former city property tax will cut about $10 million more from the budget, Reichert said.
Ellington said it was a “broken promise” to leave even half the tax in place for an extra year. But given budget constraints, he’s glad it happened.
Nearly 70 percent of spending is pay and benefits, but the consolidation charter states the intention of avoiding layoffs. Reichert said it’s much too early to say whether that will be possible. For now, he’s still hoping attrition will solve most of the problem.
“We’re looking for ways to encourage those people who are thinking about retiring,” Reichert said.
Exacerbating that is the promise of a unified pay plan that would equalize pay between former city and county workers, especially in law enforcement. County Manager Dale Walker has estimated it would cost about $3.5 million more.
It’s vital to deal with pay issues before they can fester, despite the cost, Davis said.
“In a lot of the other consolidated governments I’ve looked at in Georgia ... some of the lingering pay and benefit issues have been things that it took years to fix,” he said.
Reichert said he thinks the biggest holdover issue from the consolidation vote is the status of Payne City, which has a population of about 250. There, voters rejected consolidation 9-7. Since then, though, Payne City officials have urged folding in with Macon-Bibb.
State Rep. Bubber Epps, R-Dry Branch, head of the local General Assembly delegation, said he’s sure that issue will be handled in the upcoming legislative session. The delegation’s holdout has been state Rep. James Beverly, D-Macon, whose district covers the area. But Epps said he thinks Beverly will agree to add Payne City to Macon-Bibb, perhaps with recognition as a historic district.
The government still needs to work on equalizing services between the former city and county, Reichert said. To that, Lucas added her concern for evenly distributing government dollars.
“I think we are spending too much money on some projects and not spending enough money over the entire county, especially in neighborhoods,” she said.
Ultimately, Davis said, residents won’t care how officials hash out such issues, but only whether expected services actually are delivered.
TOUGH CHOICES TO COME
Reichert said he thinks consolidation brought a “spirit of optimism and enthusiasm” that hadn’t been seen locally for years. Pointing at a map in his office of downtown development plans, he reeled off big projects that are seeing increased activity: his Second Street Corridor plan, the effort to make Ocmulgee National Monument a national park and an extension of Sardis Church Road.
“We’re already talking 20, 30 years out,” Reichert said.
Mayor of Macon for six years before consolidation, he won a three-year term heading the new government and is eligible for one more term of four full years. But Reichert said he’s too busy with current plans to talk about the chances of him running in 2016.
“I have not made any sort of determination on that,” he said.
Despite ambitious plans, the next few years will be filled with hard choices. Chief among them, all involved acknowledge, is how or whether to meet the mandated general fund budget cut of 20 percent within five years. Recently Macon-Bibb officials asked legislators for an out and were turned down.
Epps said local legislators made the cut an integral part of the charter. Those Macon-Bibb elected officials who ran on supporting the consolidation charter, in particular, have an obligation to voters to uphold it, he said. Epps thinks it can be done but will require “creative work and courageous decisions.”
Lucas, however, said people need to face the fact that it may not be possible without deep cuts in personnel and services. She noted that the charter does contain an out: Macon-Bibb can exceed the budget mandate if they declare it necessary for public safety.
One holdover from divided government is trash collection. The Solid Waste Department collects within the old city limits, while private contractor Advanced Disposal picks up in the former unincorporated area. In 2013, Reichert said he wanted to keep both systems in place for a year and let them compete to show efficiency.
He still says equalization of garbage rates is in the works, but a recent extension of Advanced Disposal’s contract effectively kicked the can down the road for another two and a half years.
Lucas said Solid Waste needs to remain a government department and should not be outsourced.
Regardless of disagreement on issues, she said, she and other commissioners are committed to making consolidation work.
“It’s what we have,” Lucas said. “It’s all we have right now.”
Information from Telegraph archives was used in this report. To contact writer Jim Gaines, call 744-4489.