Macon council panel OKs tapping SPLOST for budget shortfall

Macon City Council’s Appropriations Committee, looking to shore up finances in the face of looming budget shortfalls, Monday voted to dip into excess SPLOST revenue and retrieve $1.8 million. But it declined to reduce council members’ paychecks.

Officials in Mayor Robert Reichert’s administration have projected at least a $2 million deficit by June 30, the end of the fiscal year, if steps are not taken to cut costs. Revenues, especially from sales tax, have started to slide downward while the city is burning through fuel at a rate that will carry it hundreds of thousands of dollars beyond what officials planned to spend.

The excess SPLOST funds would be used to reimburse general fund expenses that were covered by the tax in previous years but were not this year. About $9 million in SPLOST money has been set aside and left alone this year because it represents funds collected beyond the amount voters authorized when they approved the tax in 2005.

“This is something I saw we could do to cover the shortfall in our budget,” said Councilman Virgil Watkins, who proposed the ordinance, which the committee passed 4-1. The full City Council will vote on the ordinance at tonight’s meeting.

Councilwoman Nancy White was the lone vote against the matter, calling it fiscally irresponsible. She cited predictions from the administration that the recession could last several years, as well as Finance Director Tom Barber’s recommendation that the council save the money for when things get worse in future budget cycles.

“I think we’re just making it more and more difficult,” she said.

Reichert has previously opposed using the SPLOST money, but has relaxed his view somewhat in recent weeks.

“This is not his first option,” said Keith Moffett, Reichert’s director of internal affairs. “But if it’s the will of the council, we’re on board.”

Reichert has suggested cuts to capital expenditures — including road paving, the city’s truancy program and improvements to the Ocmulgee Heritage Trail — as another means of dealing with the matter. He has said such cuts are needed in addition to accessing the SPLOST funds to ensure that Macon enters the next budget year on the most sound footing possible.

Several council members have expressed skepticism that such capital cuts are necessary, and have suggested the administration is preaching “doom and gloom” that does not exist. Councilman Lonnie Miley said that sends a bad message to constituents. The city always will be able to provide the services they need, he said.

“We have to look in a positive direction, and things are going to improve,” Miley said.

A short time after tapping the SPLOST funds, the committee voted down a measure White proposed that mandated council members cut 10 percent from their salaries for the rest of the fiscal year.

Councilmembers make $10,000 per year, with the exception of the president, who makes $11,200, and the president pro-tem, who makes $10,600.

While the savings generated by a salary reduction would do little to bridge the gap between anticipated revenues and expenses, White said the cut would have made “a huge statement of moral leadership.”

The council should not ask department heads and city employees to make cuts that they themselves were not willing to endure, she said.

But after several amendments were made to the proposal, including cutting the mayor’s salary, even White voted against it when Councilwoman Elaine Lucas amended the legislation to make the entire thing voluntary.

White said a voluntary pay reduction would be “hypocritical” because residents are not allowed to pay taxes on a volunteer basis.

But Lucas said no legislation is needed for council members to donate part of their paychecks back to the city.

“Those who wish to do this can do it at any time,” she said.

To contact writer Matt Barnwell, call 744-4251.