City of Macon, Bibb County at odds over Justice Department grant

Macon is seeking a greater share of annual U.S. Department of Justice funding that it has, until now, been splitting equally with Bibb County.

While the city tries to assert itself at the bargaining table, county officials are resisting the effort, which comes as federal stimulus spending inflates the Justice Assistance Grant to levels far greater than previous years.

About $572,000 is available this year to address crime in the city and county, Macon officials said Tuesday. For the past four years, the two local governments have split equally awards that ranged from $34,000 to nearly $115,000. However, the Justice Department has recommended that Macon take 80 percent of the funding since most crime occurs in the city.

In the past, Macon has used its portion to supplement D.A.R.E. activities, crime suppression efforts by the police department’s STRIKE Team, drug investigations and to upgrade its technology. The county has supplemented operations of the Drug Court with its share of the money.

Now, with the anticipated influx of new cash, city officials want to buy more than $400,000 worth of software and equipment for the police department. Among the items on their wish list are records management software, forensic video imaging, in-car cameras and a barcode evidence tracking system.

“This is finally a chance for us to get things we’ve needed for years that we haven’t been able to get,” Police Chief Mike Burns said.

Meanwhile, the county sees an opportunity to reduce the financial burden of Drug Court operations by covering a greater share of those costs with the grant.

“We’ve had to supplement it every year,” Bibb County Commission Chairman Sam Hart said.

The JAG program is the primary provider of federal criminal justice funding to state and local jurisdictions, according to the Justice Department, and it is intended to support a wide range of activities, from drug and gang task forces to crime prevention and domestic violence programs to courts, corrections, treatment and information sharing.

The city and county must sign an agreement on how they will split the money, or nobody will get any of it.

But Macon Mayor Robert Reichert and Chief Administrative Officer Thomas Thomas said that their efforts to get the county to renegotiate the funding have been met with stiff resistance, despite the fact that even with 20 percent of the grant the county would get nearly twice as much money as it has in any recent year.

“Bibb County has said ‘No, no, no, no, no,’ ” Reichert told council members at a work session Tuesday.

E-mails between Thomas and Bibb’s chief administrative officer, Steve Layson, suggest as much.

“I can appreciate the city’s views on funding from the JAG grant,” Layson wrote to Thomas on Tuesday. “The county also has a proven program that serves 100 percent of the citizens. Respectfully we stand firm on the grant being split 50/50.”

County officials argue that the more than half of the people the Drug Court serves live in the city. Hart said he planned to discuss those numbers with Reichert today.

At the same time, city officials, who have long been sensitive to the notion that the county has for years had the upper hand in their relationship, seem intent on altering the status quo. How this situation is handled sets the tone for service delivery strategy negotiations and future talks on how local sales tax revenue is divvied up, Thomas said.

“This is an issue about equity,” he said. “And this is an issue about respect for the city of Macon.”

City Council members were largely in agreement, claiming leverage in negotiations given that the county has relied on the grant funding to cover annual operational costs.

“The county has a whole lot more to lose than we do,” Councilwoman Nancy White said.

To contact writer Matt Barnwell, call 744-4251.