When voters approved Macon-Bibb County consolidation last year, Macon Mayor Robert Reichert was one of its biggest cheerleaders.
Now Reichert wants to see the process through its most delicate stage -- the actual merging of the two governments.
“The stakes have never been higher,” said Reichert, 65, a former state representative in his second term as mayor. “We’ve basically convinced everyone to double down, if you will, (on consolidation). ... There’s too much at risk right now. We’re at the tipping point. We’re either going to successfully complete this consolidation and move us forward, or we’re going to end up in a mess and fall back. There’s a lot at stake here, and I think successful completion of the transition is going to be of paramount importance.”
Reichert said he thinks he and Bibb County Chairman Sam Hart have an advantage over the other candidates when it comes to consolidation since both already serve on the consolidation task force.
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“It’s a brand new creature of government that functions as both a city and a county,” Reichert said, adding that the new mayor and commission will work closely with the constitutional offices to form a “seamless governmental structure.”
Perhaps key to whether consolidation succeeds is how well the new government meets the mandate of cutting the budget by 20 percent in its first half-decade. Reichert said he would have preferred the legislators who drafted the consolidation bill to have mandated 20 percent property tax decreases instead.
“My intent is to try to live up to the spirit of the law as well as the letter of the law and try our dead-level best to do that,” Reichert said.
Reichert said the new government will be a work in progress, with some changes coming gradually.
“Everyone expects the change is going to all happen on Jan. 1. That’s not going to happen,” he said. “Even all of the physical locations (of the government’s offices) won’t be changed by then. It’s going to take several months or even several years before the consolidation is complete.”
Reichert said he would take a “balanced approach” when it comes to employees, since employee costs and benefits make up the bulk of the government’s spending. The intent of the consolidation legislation was to provide any current city or county worker a job if they wish, but at the same time, it also calls for the new government to be more efficient. Some savings likely will take place from retirements.
“We’ll seek ultimate efficiency over several months,” he said.
Balancing the budget
When Reichert was elected mayor in 2007, he took over a city with deep financial issues. Macon Councilwoman Nancy White said Reichert played a huge part in getting Macon back on its feet.
“He’s built up our finances,” White said. “He’s been methodical in his approach about what he wanted to accomplish. ... He firmed up our finances, which had been in shambles. We were getting payday loans for payroll. He’s been very intentional in building back up (city reserves).”
But fellow Councilman Lonnie Miley, a frequent Reichert opponent, disputes the notion that Reichert was responsible for Macon city government’s financial turnaround.
“The credit should be given to us as a council. We’re the stewards of the budget,” Miley said. “We have to approve money that’s spent, appropriate it. I wouldn’t come close to giving him credit.”
Miley criticized Reichert for reducing some of the city’s workforce during his first term.
“I don’t think he’s pro-employee,” Miley said. “I hope when the new government comes in, we elect people who consider how important our employees are.”
But Reichert noted that he reinstated a pay scale for police and fire employees, something that was removed during Mayor Jim Marshall’s administration in the late 1990s. Reichert said the city’s finances were righted despite the national economic recession when he became mayor.
“We have made remarkable changes in the Finance Department and the finances of the city,” he said. “We inherited a mess, a $4 million negative fund balance when I took over, and the worst economic times since the Great Depression. We have managed to be smart in the way we spent money. ... We have not raised taxes, but we’ve managed to claw our way back to a positive fund balance, and we are very proud of that. At the same time, we have made changes (for police and fire), reinstituted a pay scale, and that was huge.”
Reichert also has been a major proponent of regionalism, and he points to work he’s done with other midstate city and county leaders to protect Robins Air Force base, improve transportation and provide clean air.
He’s also worked hard to attract industry.
Pat Topping, senior vice president for the Macon Economic Development Commission, said when outside companies are looking to settle in Macon and Bibb County, the city’s economic health is an important consideration. He said business prospects have been impressed with Macon’s development.
“It’s a major factor,” he said. “The turnaround of the city is extremely important. Companies look at that because they want to make sure the infrastructure will be kept up.”
Reichert said he wants to see economic development continue, and putting together a “one-stop shop” for licenses and permits has long been one of his goals to make it easier for a business to open.
“We ought to be smart enough to be business-friendly,” he said. “We need to accommodate new businesses, and a one-stop shop has been high on my mind.”
Cleaning up Macon
Reichert came into office with a goal of removing 100 blighted homes in the city per year but has hit that benchmark just once.
It’s not simply showing up at a blighted house and knocking it down, he said. There are procedures that must be followed, and it costs the city about $7,500 per house.
“We’re making a new, aggressive push,” Reichert said, noting that some of the demolitions of commercial buildings are the equivalent of several houses. “We’ve gotten more money from council, and we’ve outsourced some of the demolition, so hopefully that will speed things up.”
Reichert instituted the “5-by-5 Program” that targets cleanups in different parts of Macon five blocks at a time. And he’s hopeful the massive Second Street redesign will gentrify neighborhoods that border it. Reichert said the Second Street project “is beginning to catch fire.”
As the neighborhoods continue to improve, Reichert said he hopes it will mean a further reduction in crime.
Reichert said his vision of attacking crime is divided into three areas: prevention, which includes keeping children in school and off the streets; investigation, which focuses on solving crime; and rehabilitation, which includes paring down recidivism.
Dealing with criticism
Reichert has drawn his fair share of criticism in a variety of arenas.
Opponents of the Bibb County school system’s Macon Miracle and former Superintendent Romain Dallemand didn’t care for Reichert’s support of the schools’ strategic plan.
“The entire community must recognize that we need a strong, vibrant education system,” he said. “It’s a community issue, and we all need to come together. ... In hindsight, I’d probably do some things over, though I’d hasten to say my support was not so much for Dr. Dallemand as it was trying to support the (school board). ... What can a mayor do to try to help the school system? Support the board of education.”
A segment of the community also criticized Reichert for not taking punitive measures against Macon police officer Clayton Sutton for fatally shooting Sammie Davis Jr. in the parking lot of the Pio Nono Avenue Kroger last December. Reichert noted the District Attorney’s Office asked the GBI to investigate the shooting, which was later ruled justified because Sutton felt threatened when Davis lunged at him and cut his neck.
Reichert said he visited Davis’ sister and other family members three times to express his condolences and keep them apprised of the investigation.
Reichert said he thinks his personality and experience are the reasons voters should elect him as the first mayor of the new Macon-Bibb County. Despite his critics, Reichert said he wants to continue to work hard to bring the community together, even if his decisions are sometimes unpopular.
“The experience I bring is unsurpassed,” he said. “Some people can accuse me of being hard-headed, but they mistake perseverance with being hard-headed. I will persevere in causes that I think are right and just. I will advocate for causes I believe in, causes that will serve the best interest of this community, even when it’s not the most popular thing to do.”
To contact writer Phillip Ramati, call 744-4334.