This is the first time since 2004 that the Editorial Board has addressed the coming year’s challenges since 2004. We halted the practice because for several years we couldn’t get off the dime. A handful of the same issues continued to perplex and escape solution.
While some of the issues are the same of 2012 that we feature now -- consolidation, special purpose local option sales taxes, regional industry recruitment, Robins Air Force Base and governance -- some of those issues have taken many steps toward solution while others are fraught with uncertainty and doubt.
Bibb County/city of Macon consolidation
City of Macon and Bibb County leaders have known of the need for consolidation for almost a century. There have been one or two consolidation study committees each decade since the 1920s.
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The last full consolidation committee, authorized by city and county governments, ended its work in 1999. However, there were smaller efforts formed during the C. Jack Ellis administration. Citizens of the area have voted, and defeated the issue, six times.
At no time in the long and tortured history of consolidation has it ever been closer to becoming a reality. Certainly, there are many challenges ahead (see editorial on 3D) but the Bibb County local delegation could submit a unanimous proposal by the end of this legislative session that could be voted on as early as July and implemented in 2013.
The Bibb County school system has been one of the top issues for as long as there has been a listing of top issues. Again, hope is on the horizon, Almost a year ago, the Bibb County Board of Education hired Romain Dallemand to lead the system after the tumultuous departure of the prior superintendent. Of what we know now, the strategic plan Dallemand intends to debut Feb. 10 is bold and not replicated anywhere else in the country.
Bold action is necessary. For decades the system has turned out under-performing students. Fifty-five percent of the last cohort that entered the 9th grade four years ago didn’t receive a diploma. As the system turned out busloads of former students to the streets, crime committed by young offenders rose. And the type of crime, drive-by shootings, murder, burglary and robbery hit new heights.
The challenge and question for the community is whether it will get behind an effort that is sure to turn the school system upside down. As a community we talk a good game, but now appears the opportunity to produce the support the school system will need to implement more than 100 action steps to guide the system to success.
Robins Air Force Base
While education and consolidation are vital issues, success in those areas can be delayed or, as in the case of education, take years to see the results. But the looming fight over the military budget has all Middle Georgia eyes on Robins Air Force Base. If the base catches a cold, Middle Georgia will have bronchial pneumonia.
While under the guidance of Maj. Gen. Robert McMahon, the base has raised its evaluation points considerably. In fact, the difference in the base’s performance is incredible.
But the military is looking to cut almost $500 billion over 10 years out of its budget, and if Congress doesn’t get its act together, another $500 billion could also evaporate. No one doubts that the military need to shrink -- it’s happened after every major conflict -- but the pound of flesh that could be extracted, particularly from the Air Force, could cut through the bone.
The challenge for the base and surrounding areas are not to wilt. Bibb County has stepped up and passed a special purpose local option sales tax that includes $6 million to address encroachment issues at the north end of the base. In March, Houston County will vote on a SPLOST that is expected to raise the $155 million over six years. It would pay for road widening, a new Centerville police department facility, a new recreation facility in Warner Robins and numerous other projects throughout the county -- and it will pump another $7 million into the fund to buy up homes in the encroachment area. Gov. Nathan Deal has pledged to inject another $7 million to $10 million into the effort. That and federal government grants will give the area enough money to buy out property owners in the area.
While the encroachment issue by itself will not save the missions at the base, eliminating it will certainly help protect the largest industrial complex in the state that injects more than $4 billion into the local economy that spans more than 50 counties.
While the base is a top of mind issue, there are other items that face, particularly, Houston County. The SPLOST, if passed, will also address a need that is not as much in the public eye as it needs to be. Houston County’s level of growth draws envy from other communities. However, with growth there are other challenges.
The county has a tax mix of industry and residential that is out of kilter. The mix leans to the residential side too much. Quite frankly, the amount of property taxes collected really can’t pay the bills when it comes to supporting infrastructure, schools and law enforcement. More industry is needed and there is $21.5 million in the SPLOST dedicated to acquiring and developing light and heavy industrial sites in Houston County.
Some have said regionalism can’t be done. They have said there are too many differences between the Middle Georgia areas that span beyond Bibb and Houston counties.
Tell that to the Board of Regents for the University System of Georgia. It has approved the merging of eight colleges, and two of them are in Middle Georgia: Macon State College and Middle Georgia College in Cochran. Between the two schools there are six campuses, and an effort to create a viable synergy is underway, led by Macon State President Jeff Allbritten.
While we don’t bemoan the appointment of Morgan B. Law as the new president and CEO for the Robins Regional Chamber of Commerce, there was an opportunity for an out-of-the-box idea. With the departures of Megan Smith at the Perry Chamber, Chip Cherry at the Macon Chamber and Ed Rodriguez in Warner Robins, there was a fleeting notion that regionalism could begin with a single head for all of the chambers of commerce. OK, we realize how far out-of-the-box that concept is, but, as one door closes another opens. Law comes to the Robins chamber from the Houston County Development Authority, and there have been numerous suggestions that the recruitment effort, which already has regional cooperation, could be more closely connected.
The regional transportation SPLOST that will come to a vote in July has a number of big ticket items that could propel the area into a new day. For our money, the T-SPLOST could address transportation needs throughout Middle Georgia. If passed, the injection of funds would enable the Macon Regional Airport to expand its runway, bringing the possibility of air freight and aircraft maintenance expansion. That means hundreds of high-paying jobs could be in the offing.
Whether citizens will approve an extra penny on top of other pennies is an open question that will not be answered until the measure goes to ballot. At some point, all the extra pennies add up, and voters reach a tipping point where they will say “no” to the most worthy of projects.
These and other issues will make 2012 an exciting time for Middle Georgia. As always, the year will present the totally unexpected and we will have to be adroit enough to manage the ensuing chaos or celebration.
-- Charles E. Richardson, for the Editorial Board