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Hart: Courthouse relocation, Monroe border on radar

Admitting that he’s still trying to find his way around the courthouse, Bibb County Commission Chairman Sam Hart said Thursday that Bibb’s financial picture is good, despite rough economic times that have caused sales tax revenue and interest rates to fall.

January reports show sales tax revenue has dropped 2 percent over the last six months, and the county’s interest rate at the state pool is down 3 percentage points, Hart said at a Greater Macon Chamber of Commerce event.

In the past fiscal year, the county increased its general fund balance by $6 million to $31.5 million, Hart said. However, since then the county has spent about $8 million in supplemental spending, exceeding the increase by about $2 million, he said.

Hart said in his first 28 days as chairman, he has become well acquainted with the challenges facing the county.

One of the most expensive is the Bibb County Courthouse.

Building a new courthouse carries a huge price tag — at least $60 million to $70 million, according to 2007 figures — and is contingent on the county passing a new penny tax, Hart said.

Superior Court judges ordered the commission to build a new courthouse by July but have since extended the deadline to July 1, 2012. The county already is purchasing land and has issued a request for qualifications for an architect to study the existing courthouse and make plans for a new one, Hart said.

Some at the event questioned whether moving the courthouse would harm its area of downtown. Hart said the commission is committed to not creating another blighted area with the move.

Following the forum, Carolina Land, an interpreter who conveys court proceedings to non-English speakers, said she would like to hear more about plans to staff interpreters at the Bibb County Courthouse. But she said the idea of putting all of the judicial operations in one new place “is awesome.”

“I believe that will bring up a little better that side of town,” she said.

There are some ideas for what to do with the current structure, too.

One is to keep offices unrelated to the courts in the current location while also bringing in other agencies, Hart said. Macon Mayor Robert Reichert, who presented a state of the city address at the same event, said he envisions some government services being consolidated in a single location there.

The two already have begun talking about the service delivery strategy and how it could lead to consolidated services, such as engineering, purchasing and human resources and finally the creation of a one-stop shop for developers. The service delivery strategy outlines which governments will provide what services to residents and at what cost.

The negotiations will lay the groundwork for possible consolidation three or four years down the road, Hart said. Both he and Reichert are committed to combining some services and moving toward consolidation, Hart said.

“We are trying to at least make this a more efficient kind of government,” he said.

On another front — the one between Bibb and Monroe County, to be exact — a dispute is raging.

The exact location of the border has been in dispute for years, and tempers flared most recently in 2004 with the announcement that the Bass Pro Shops complex was going to be built near the county line on what appeared to be the Bibb side of the border.

With millions of dollars in potential tax revenue at stake, a Monroe County grand jury asked Gov. Sonny Perdue to order a survey to be sure of the line. The survey began in August 2008.

The Secretary of State’s Office hopes Bibb and Monroe counties may reach a compromise before a survey of the county line is complete, Hart said. He said he had some initial conversations with Monroe Commission Chairman James Vaughn and found him to be a “willing listener.”

If no agreement is reached, the county will have a chance to appeal the survey once it is complete and filed with the secretary of state, Hart said.

Based on where some markers already have been placed, the county will appeal, Hart said. Bibb needs to protect its investments, including $7.9 million in bonds the county issued to the Bass Pro Shops, which is in the disputed area.

The Macon Bibb County Industrial Authority also invested $1.2 million there, he said.

Hart assured residents possibly affected by the survey that services will continue as usual until a final determination is reached.

After the event, Pat Topping, chief executive officer of the Macon Economic Development Commission, said he liked how both Hart and Reichert talked about working together, specifically in regard to the service delivery strategy.

“I thought both of them were very uplifting,” he said.

Staff writer Matt Barnwell contributed to this report. To contact writer Jennifer Burk, call 744-4345.

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