Hart: Sessions will help identify problems

Bibb County Commission Chairman-elect Sam Hart doesn’t seem like a “my way or the highway” type of guy.

He built his election platform around what residents told him they wanted, and now he plans to set the stage for the next four years the same way.

Starting in January, Hart said, he will hold weekly listening forums to find out what issues are most important to Bibb residents. The forums will culminate with a community leadership conference in late February or early March.

“I want to make sure I get to hear as many people as I can before setting the agenda for the conference,” said Hart, who will officially take office Jan. 1 to replace outgoing Chairman Charlie Bishop.

That conference, which will include elected officials from the city, county and school board, college officials, religious leaders and business professionals, will help create a new vision for Macon and Bibb County, as well as solutions to current problems, Hart said.

Participants then will go out and share the vision, as well as help implement it, he said.

“To come back and say, ‘This is the vision. Here it is!’ is a meaningless gesture,” Hart said. “We don’t want it to be like the consolidation study where nothing actually happened. I want it to be heavy on implementation.”

Commissioner Elmo Richardson said Hart is already fairly knowledgeable about the county from his 10 years as a District 1 commissioner, but the conference was not a bad idea.

“It’s probably a pretty good idea to get some ideas about what people think and how this community needs to move forward. It’s something we haven’t done,” he said, noting that the Greater Macon Chamber of Commerce hosts a similar gathering.

But implementing those ideas is the tricky part, he said.

“Trying to implement these ideas sometimes is a little difficult, and everybody’s ideas can’t be implemented,” he said. “Some of them are just impractical.”

Commissioner Lonzy Edwards said he applauds Hart’s initiative to get everyone working together.

“I’m glad that he’s willing to take on the challenge of trying to promote the intergovernmental dialogue,” he said.

Outside of the conference, Hart said, he has talked with all department heads and is aware of the challenges the county faces in 2009.

The county must adhere to a court order to build a new courthouse by July 1 and look at how it will fund employees’ post-retirement benefits, all while a shaky economy threatens revenue streams and a predicted avalanche of appeals from the countywide property revaluation may delay a new tax digest.

A new special penny tax would be the best way to pay for the courthouse and keep the county out of debt, Hart said, but it may be a hard sell to the public, which would have to vote on the matter. The current penny tax will expire in March.

“In these times, people still see that as a tax,” Hart said. “We’ll have to sell it to the public.”

That might be done by allocating some of the sales tax money to recreation or some other quality of life issue, he said.

If a new penny tax doesn’t pass, “we have to go back to the drawing board,” which may include taking out bonds to pay for the courthouse, Hart said.

As for any other tax increase, he said, “I just don’t think this community is ready for a tax increase right now.”

Hart said he also is concerned about reducing the county’s liability for employees’ post-retirement benefits.

Funding the liability, which is about $80 million, is important to keep the county’s good bond rating, he said. However, it might be time to consider benefits changes for new employees that might include employee contributions, Hart said.

That would slow down and reduce future growth of the obligation, he said.

“There are adequate packages you can put together to still make this an attractive place to work,” he said.

At some point this year, Hart and the rest of the commission will have to address the service delivery strategy with the city of Macon.

The city and county recently agreed to extend the current strategy to June 30, at which time officials will have to decide whether to reauthorize it or renegotiate.

Hart said he’s not sure anything needs to be renegotiated, and he’d like commissioners and City Council members to be educated about the current agreement before they sit down together.

That could keep talks from getting contentious, said Hart, who has a reputation as a peacemaker.

“I want to make sure we’re talking about the same thing,” he said.

Hart said he hopes to work closely with Macon Mayor Robert Reichert, who endorsed Hart during the election, on joint initiatives that will help the city and county become more efficient.

Both have an interest in consolidation, he said. Although that is a long-range idea, smaller efficiencies, such as creating a one-stop shop for business licenses, may eventually lead to that, he said.

“I think there’s still some real interest in consolidation,” he said.