Reichert: Several options being looked at to shore up Macon's finances

Definitive plans for how the city of Macon will deal with a projected $2 million shortfall in this year’s budget are still unknown.

But Mayor Robert Reichert said Wednesday that administration officials are looking at several options they hope to begin presenting to city council next week. Reichert raised the prospect of furloughs for city workers when he first notified the council of Macon’s budget problems Tuesday, but he said officials are starting elsewhere before they consider trimming personnel costs.

“We are combing the budget,” the mayor said.

His informal list of priorities includes first looking for all revenue opportunities and areas where spending can be “economized,” he said. Next, officials will likely look for capital projects and maintenance that can be deferred, he said, followed by areas where city services can be cut. At the bottom of the list are furloughs or, ultimately, layoffs.

Some projects already have been identified for postponement, Reichert said, including $300,000 for road paving in east Macon and about $100,000 in matching funds for Ocmulgee Heritage Trail grant funding. Meanwhile, department heads have been instructed to cut fuel consumption by 10 percent.

But those moves won’t be enough on their own, Reichert said, and the city must take into account that it’s unknown how long or how deep the recession will run.

“I think we need to be prepared for a longer period,” he said.

It’s a lean time for local governments, as they are battered by the country’s stalled economy. Chief sources of revenue — local sales taxes, building permits, business licenses — have dipped below expected amounts as people stop spending money. In addition to those losses, Macon has faced cost overruns on its fuel thanks to a contract that has locked the city into paying $3.30 per gallon of gasoline since August.

By the end of December, the city had spent $1.2 million on fuel — already 80 percent of the amount that was budgeted in the fiscal year that began July 1, Finance Director Tom Barber said.

The council just authorized the mayor to sign a new contract that Barber said he expects will lower the per gallon cost by about 60 cents, and save the city $35,000 each month. But he expects the city will come up $750,000 short on fuel by June 30, the end of the fiscal year.

At the same time, Macon is not the only city experiencing financial woes.

In Atlanta, where a $50 million shortfall is expected, city revenues are down by more than 12 percent. More than 200 staff positions have been eliminated, and last month Mayor Shirley Franklin instituted four-hour-a-week furloughs in most city agencies. Franklin is taking the pay cut along with 4,600 Atlanta employees.

The state’s capital city took other steps as well. It put in place a hiring freeze, pulled $12 million out of reserves and cut back on a variety of services. Public pool openings were delayed, arts programming was eliminated, weekly pickups for recycling and yard trimmings were reduced to every other week, and the number of neighborhood street cleanings was cut.

Reichert said some services in Macon are essential, and unlikely to be cut, including police, fire and sanitation. But others could be more easily targeted, he said, such as the number of hours recreation centers are open or the amount of programming offered at the centers.

Although furloughs are described as a last resort, studies are being prepared to determine the amount of savings they could achieve.

Macon has 26 pay periods, and a total annual payroll of about $40 million, Barber said. That’s more than $1.5 million spent on employees every two weeks, and more than $15 million remaining to be spent before this budget cycle ends.

With about 10 pay periods left in the year, if Macon furloughed workers for one day every two weeks it would generate about $1.5 million — not enough on its own to shore up the predicted shortfall.

Reggie Moore, a special operations manager in the Parks and Recreation Department, said if it comes down to it, furloughs would be preferable to layoffs. Saving jobs should be a priority, he said.

“The economic downturn — everybody’s looking for ways you can keep people employed,” said Moore. “We’re just kind of waiting to see what happens.”

Anthony L. Collins, a Public Works heavy equipment operator and local chapter president of the Service Employees International Union, said any cuts to salary that might be made should start with the city’s highest-paid employees. The union represents various workers in the Public Works and Parks and Recreation departments.

Collins said the city could start saving money by making cheaper purchases and limiting unnecessary activities that consume fuel.

“It’s always the people at the bottom of the totem pole or at the lower end that are the first ones thought about (for cutting),” he said. “It just would really hurt us if they would cut our pay or start a furlough.”

To contact staff writer Matt Barnwell, call 744-4251.