Battle lines are forming for a fight over Macon-Bibb County’s annual budget, though its final approval is still four months away. If public finances and policies continue as they are, Mayor Robert Reichert warned Tuesday, the government won’t be able to afford its current employees.
Two forces are pushing the budget down: a mandate in the consolidation charter to cut the general fund by 20 percent within five years, with the first 5 percent cut required in the coming fiscal year; and a drop in revenue as the last half of the former Macon city property tax is removed -- about $6 million -- fulfilling Reichert’s pledge when consolidation was approved.
“That is going to be a significant reduction in revenue for us,” Reichert said.
Meanwhile, there are forces pushing in the other direction, encouraging a stable budget. Those include the continuation of a post-retirement health insurance subsidy and a plan to equalize pay for comparable former city and county employees.
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Macon-Bibb commissioners on Tuesday rejected Reichert’s renewed attempt to set a cutoff date for new recipients to get the insurance subsidy. They also put aside a proposal from Commissioner Mallory Jones to waive the required budget cut.
“I really think that we’ve got some hard decisions to make,” Reichert said.
In October commissioners defeated the mayor’s first attempt to set a deadline for former Bibb County employees to get a $388 monthly insurance subsidy after retirement. That wouldn’t have taken it away from any current recipients, or anyone who retired before the cutoff. But Reichert hoped to encourage some high-paid longtime employees to retire and keep the total subsidy cost close to its current $2.8 million annually.
He brought up the resolution again Tuesday, only to have it immediately tabled by a 3-2 vote in the commission’s Operations & Finance Committee. Commissioners Elaine Lucas, Scotty Shepherd and Virgil Watkins voted to table the motion, without any discussion.
“Man, that is just disrespectful, disrespectful,” Reichert said, clearly fuming.
But commissioners also tabled Jones’ ordinance to set aside the budget-cut mandate, after Reichert said he’d rather deal with the budget in stages instead of announcing at the start that the reduction wouldn’t happen. The motion to table passed 3-2, supported by Commissioners Gary Bechtel, Larry Schlesinger and Shepherd.
County Attorney Judd Drake said Macon-Bibb’s “home rule” authority lets commissioners amend the charter, but there are other ways to work around the mandated cuts.
Agreeing with Watkins, County Manager Dale Walker said budget cuts in response to dropping tax revenue essentially already have fulfilled the first required cut.
“We’re going to hit the 5 percent one way or the other,” Walker said.
Coming soon is a resolution to put into place a recently announced pay plan, intended to equalize pay for former city and county workers. Sheriff David Davis announced that he already has managed to do that in his office, using pay from vacant positions for the rest of this fiscal year -- for much less than originally estimated.
“Now over 200 of our deputies, former (Macon Police Department) folks and some civilians have been brought up to be in line with pre-consolidation deputies,” he said. The resulting raises will appear on their next paychecks, Davis said.
But implementing the pay plan for all other Macon-Bibb workers is expected to cost about $3 million more, Reichert said. Pay and benefits already are 80 percent of the annual budget, meaning there’s not really anyplace to cut without affecting jobs, he said.
That’s why Reichert wants to encourage retirements.
“But I’ll tell you this: We’ve got more employees currently than we can afford,” he said. If attrition doesn’t cut costs, commissioners will face a need to cut workers’ hours -- or cut jobs, Reichert said.
The only other option would be a tax hike, he said.
To contact writer Jim Gaines, call 744-4489.