Council declines to vote on pension plan, Cherry Blossom Festival funding

The Macon City Council declined to vote on two controversial proposals Tuesday night — plans to provide pension benefits for themselves and the mayor, and a resolution requesting that revenue be taken away from the Cherry Blossom Festival and rerouted to two downtown museums.

Councilman Rick Hutto, who sponsored the pension ordinance, said he decided to pull it from consideration because of public perception that it would cost taxpayers money. About 20 residents showed up to express their displeasure with the proposal, and one man speaking against the legislation called it a “total disgrace” to Macon for council members to even consider it.

But during and after the meeting, Hutto reiterated his point that the program would be voluntary and require elected officials to contribute to the plan on their own. It would have cost the city nothing, he said. Still, he requested the council table the matter because of how the public viewed the idea.

“The problem, of course, is that perception is everything,” he said.

Hutto said he does not expect to raise the issue again. Five council members voted against tabling it, and a sixth, Tom Ellington, was prepared to propose an amendment that would have delayed the ordinance from taking effect until the next political term. That likely would have made it more palatable to others who were concerned about the image of voting to provide themselves access to a benefit.

If the ordinance is to be reconsidered, a majority of the council would have to vote to take it off the table.

Meanwhile, the fate of the Cherry Blossom resolution rests once again with the Appropriations Committee. In an 8-7 vote, council members sent the proposal back to the panel for further review. Councilwoman Lauren Benedict, who made the motion, said there needs to be more information provided on the finances and economic impact of the festival and various Macon museums.

“I just want to see the underlying information,” she said, echoing a request of several other council members who have resisted a vote on the resolution.

The Tubman African American Museum and the Georgia Children’s Museum stand to gain new revenue streams if the hotel/motel tax was redistributed so that two-thirds of what the festival receives is sent to those facilities instead. In dollar amounts, the festival’s current-year budget suggests the $45,000 it gets from the city in bed tax revenue would be cut to $15,000. But officials say they don’t know what the true impact would be.

Appropriations Committee Chairman Mike Cranford, the sponsor of the ordinance, said his committee has debated the issue long enough. Cranford, a member of the Children’s Museum board, said council members trying to delay the vote are serving their own interests rather than the needs of children who could benefits from the two museums’ educational programming.

“Children can’t give campaign contributions,” he said. “But board members of the Cherry Blossom can.”

Even if passed, however, the resolution is ultimately only a request. It would be up to the local legislative delegation to the General Assembly to decide whether to reallocate hotel/motel taxes.

Mayor Robert Reichert told council members prior to their meeting that the city needs to concentrate instead on a previously passed resolution requesting that legislators use the tax to fund the besieged Georgia Sports and Georgia Music halls of fame. To tack on additional redistribution requests would “upset the apple cart,” he said.

“The idea is not necessarily bad,” he told council members, “but to be perfectly honest, I think your timing’s terrible.”

To contact writer Matt Barnwell, call 744-4251.