With Macon and Bibb County merging into one government come Jan. 1, the new mayor and nine commissioners will face a new set of challenges leading the community.
Arguably the new government’s structure will mean a new approach to solving problems.
The Telegraph asked the six mayoral candidates on the ballot -- Bibb County Commissioner Joe Allen, former Bibb County Chairman Charlie Bishop, businessman David Cousino, former Macon Mayor C. Jack Ellis, Bibb Commission Chairman Sam Hart and Macon Mayor Robert Reichert -- about five key issues facing the community.
Early voting in the Sept. 17 elections begins Monday.
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Unlike the city’s current arrangement of having a police chief who reports to the mayor, the constitutional office of sheriff will oversee law enforcement in the new government and doesn’t report to the new mayor and commission.
If elected, Allen said, he would focus on civic cleanup and bringing in jobs to prevent the kinds of conditions that can cause crime rather than tackling crime directly.
Bishop, a former Macon deputy police chief, said he would give the sheriff’s office the resources it needs to deal with crime but wouldn’t offer direction of how to use those resources.
“I’ll let the sheriff do his job and set his priorities,” Bishop said. “The sheriff is the professional. I’d make crimefighting the No. 1 priority, make public safety the No. 1 priority. But it takes money. It takes proper training.”
Reichert wants to take a three-part approach to reducing crime: prevention, which includes keeping youths in school and out of gangs; intervention, which includes solving crimes; and rehabilitation, which includes eliminating recidivism as well as keeping in jail criminals who have committed multiple crimes.
Ellis said he’d work with Sheriff David Davis as an equal. The new government’s role would be to focus on crime prevention, he said.
“You do that by having good parks and recreation programs. We do that by making sure we have good training programs, good after-school programs for children and working with families early on,” Ellis said.
Hart said he wants to make sure sheriff’s deputies have all the personnel and equipment they need. But he also said the emphasis should be on crime prevention, such as programs to be offered at the juvenile justice center now under construction, he said. But community involvement is what really cuts crime, Hart said.
“When the homeownership increases, you see crime go down,” he said.
Cousino said he wants more police on the streets to act as a deterrent to crime. But he also thinks there are too many officers now, given the population of the combined city and county.
Reichert has been a strong proponent of regionalism and would continue that approach with Macon serving as the Middle Georgia region’s hub. He cited his past work with economic development agencies, the Clean Air Coalition, and public-private partnerships as indicators of creating a pro-business environment. Reichert backs creating a “one-stop shop” for everything someone would need to start a new business.
Cousino said he also wants a one-stop shop to make it easier for businesses to get permits and licenses. He wants to give the Ocmulgee National Monument to an Indian tribe to develop a casino there and develop the Ocmulgee River to attract tourism.
“We have to get people back working and make people proud to call this place home,” Cousino said.
Ellis said poverty can’t be separated from education and jobs, and that Macon residents need to be trained to prepare for the workforce. Small businesses should be encouraged to move into declining neighborhoods with tax breaks and loans, he said. Ellis also urged working with the Muscogee Creek Nation “to bring casinos to our city.”
Hart said the new government should keep giving incentives to attract and keep big employers but also aid small businesses and seek to keep talented local graduates in Macon-Bibb. Those young people will start the next wave of successful businesses, he said.
Allen would seek to create jobs by giving priority for incentives to existing small local businesses, especially in revitalizing downtown Macon. Until now the major effort has been focused on bringing in major employers with big incentive packages, he said.
Bishop pointed to his record of working with economic development agencies to bring hundreds of millions of new industry into the county when he was chairman. He said he would continue that work and also work on behalf of small businesses.
20 percent budget cut
One of the main challenges is reducing the budget by 5 percent per year over the new government’s second through fifth years.
Ellis predicted in 2012 that a 20 percent cut would cause mass layoffs, big service cuts or tax increases. Now he contends the new charter doesn’t actually require a 20 percent budget cut at all.
The consolidation bill’s only caveat is that the budget level mandated for each year can be exceeded by 25 percent in “extreme economic circumstances” or if there are great public safety needs.
Ellis expects some savings by eliminating or demoting duplicate department heads. But he has also said many government workers, including trash collectors, aren’t paid enough.
Bishop said he wants to put together a five-year plan that would evaluate the cost of running the new government, as well as working with constitutional officers and having a good staff in place.
“You cannot make cuts without the support of the constitutional officers,” he said. “You can’t cut services, particularly public safety. ... If there are cuts to be made, I can make them.”
Reichert said he plans to stay true to the “spirit and letter” of the legislation.
“I’d use the efficiency of government and its effectiveness,” Reichert said. “Putting money down can get the infrastructure you need to be efficient.”
In July 2012, Hart said he didn’t think consolidation would generate big savings without a big cut in personnel. Recently, he said he expects enough of the roughly 2,000 city and county employees will retire or quit to make the needed reduction. Beyond that, Hart hopes technology upgrades will bring greater efficiency.
Privatizing services “has to be examined,” especially if some urban services expand into the county, he said.
As noted by the other candidates, personnel-related costs of salaries and benefits make up the bulk of the budget. Cousino said he would reduce the number of government workers.
“Don’t do any rehiring until more people come into the city,” he said.
Some department heads will immediately be redundant, Allen said. He expects many current employees will leave, some for jobs elsewhere, some through retirement. For those seeking other jobs, the new government should assist in their search, he said.
How the candidates handle the 20 percent budget reduction will be directly tied in with what services the new government provides. Currently, Bibb County contracts many of the services it provides -- such as waste management -- with private firms, while Macon uses in-house employees across many departments.
Reichert said he likely would use both approaches for the first year of the new government, then evaluate which way is more cost-effective.
“I think you’ll continue to see both public and private services used,” he said. “Everyone expects the changes to happen on Jan. 1, but that’s not going to happen. It’ll take several months or even years before consolidation is complete.”
Bishop said he was able to make Bibb County more efficient when he was chairman and can do so with the new government.
“I know how to save money without cutting services,” he said. “People want services that will make them feel safe and secure. ... We’ll have to look at whatever benefits the taxpayers. When I was chairman, we ran (the government) like it was a business.”
Ellis and Allen both said all residents should have the same level of services, but they differ on their approach.
Allen wants to outsource any expansion.
“It’s better to be served by outside than by your own people in that area,” he said.
Ellis said the new government should build more recreation facilities, sidewalks and other features countywide, giving priority to areas that have gone lacking for years due to racism and poverty, he said.
Hart hasn’t said definitely whether all urban services should extend countywide, but he’s looking at privatization to keep them affordable. Private security should be considered for some public facilities, especially if their operation is contracted out, too, he said.
Cousino said the current governments spend too much money already. For example, he thinks the new animal welfare shelter about to be built is too big and too expensive.
Reichert has taken an aggressive stand on removing blighted houses, instituting the 5x5 neighborhood cleanup in which the city addresses the problem five blocks at a time. While he’s only once met his goal of removing 100 blighted houses a year during his time as mayor, Reichert said he’s also attacked the problem of blighted buildings and helped convince City Council to spend more money on the issue.
“We’re outsourcing some of the demolitions, which will hopefully speed things up,” he said. “We’ve really got a backlog of houses.”
Hart wants public-private partnerships to help with revitalization but said that won’t be enough to clear empty houses.
“The only place I know you’ll get sufficient money is if you designate a portion of a SPLOST to doing that,” he said.
Ellis said the model of Beall’s Hill should be copied in other Macon neighborhoods, mixing subsidized housing into neighborhoods with young professionals and older affluent people.
As in his 2011 campaign, Ellis said some areas with only a few remaining residents should be abandoned and demolished completely. The city could pay for moving a few homeowners to comparable houses elsewhere, saving in the long term on infrastructure and services, he said.
Cousino said he would push tax assessors and building codes departments to be more aggressive in going after property owners who don’t maintain their homes.
“The people who are going out checking the properties are dropping the ball,” he said. “I’ll continue the 5x5 program, but neighborhoods that have started to decline shouldn’t have to wait seven years. Where’s the follow-up?”
Allen said he’d like to try burning abandoned houses again, as the fire department used to do before tighter pollution regulation.
He’d also seek to prevent people who might not maintain their homes from moving in or staying. But Allen was unclear how Macon-Bibb government could prevent housing sales or rentals to those deemed undeserving.
Bishop said it needs to be a total effort to solve blight, including repairs to infrastructure and working with law enforcement to move criminals out of neighborhoods. He said the effort will take a lot of money, and he would look to use future SPLOST money to pay for it.
“We’ll go into a neighborhood, fix the sidewalks, fix the storm drains, then you look left or right and there’s trash in the yards,” he said. “We’ve got to do everything as a total package. It’s got to be a concerted effort.”
To contact writer Phillip Ramati, call 744-4334. To contact writer Jim Gaines, call 744-4489.