The new year brings a new set of challenges to governments big and small. Finance officers are beginning to pull figures together for department heads for the annual budgetary process dance that will begin in earnest soon. The Macon-Bibb County Commission is no different. But it is also a time to look back. Anyone familiar with the budgeting process knows a budget is just a guide. Any enterprise, from a family to multi-million dollar corporation, needs to look back to examine how close projected expenses and revenues matched reality.
A recent audit is full of information that will help the managing partner, better known as the mayor and his administration come up with the next budget. Fortunately, coming up with the Fiscal 2018 budget is a few months away. Some citizens will look at the headline of a $8 million shortfall for fiscal 2016 and jump to inaccurate conclusions about the management of taxpayer money. Relax, the audit revealed no significant problems with county finances.
That is not to say commission and taxpayers shouldn’t be concerned, but this is also a time for a reality check. While it may seem as though we have had a consolidated government forever, that’s just not the case — particularly in 2016 when the new government was in the teething stage. The two governments merged in 2014, but remember, the first budget was just a mesh of the former city and county budgets.
What has the consolidated government accomplished? The city tax digest has been eliminated; the 20 percent decrease in expenditures mandated by the consolidation legislation was met early; the workforce has been trimmed by early retirements. So, why the shortfall? Look first at the elimination of the city tax digest, that was a two year process and income took a hit. Sales taxes, licensing, permits, fines and forfeiture revenues were down, according to the audit. Fortunately, Macon-Bibb had a rainy day fund of $28 million — and yes, it’s now $20 million.
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Certainly that can’t continue, and we’re sure upcoming budget challenges will be one of the dominant topics at the commission’s retreat in Athens starting Monday, but there should be several other top-of-mind issues that have budget implications. For example, at last report, Sheriff David Davis was down 157 deputies. Different accountants use different terms for open positions, but the bottom line is, when authorized positions are open, those salaries aren’t being paid. That’s good for the public safety line item, but not necessarily good for public safety. There is a statewide move afoot to raise law enforcement salaries 20 percent to the same level promised state law enforcement by Gov. Deal. Talk about long-term budget implications if that becomes a state but locally funded mandate. It would not be the first time that’s happened, just as any school board.
Not to pick on the Sheriff’s Office, but it cannot just pick any Joe Blow off the street and stick him or her in a uniform. That would be a recipe for disaster. Macon-Bibb has to be in the position to complete for the best deputies in the state and that’s hard to do if our salary scale is 20 percent below state law enforcement.
It’s good to remember that the consolidated government’s Fiscal 2017 general fund budget that began last July 1, is $142.8 million. It includes a 1.5 percent pay raise for employees; it is $23 million less than the combined budgets of the 2014 combined city and county budget.
Consolidation is not perfect, however, after reviewing records of Columbus, Augusta and Athens, this one is going remarkably well and the mayor and commission have hit their stride. Now the challenge: Where are the next generation of public servants to take their place when they have to leave office due to term limits. It’s not too early to start planning ahead.