Reichert: "Nobody is going to like my budget"

Mayor Robert Reichert on Tuesday handed Macon City Council a proposed budget for the 2010 cycle that is smaller than this year’s, trims 33 vacant positions and cuts 21 days of salary for many employees through a combination of furloughs and elimination of holiday pay.

Also, outside agency funding would be reduced and employees could be asked to contribute more to their health insurance plans.

Reichert said his goal is to keep the city in shape as it charts a way through the recession. He said his priorities reflect an effort to avoid layoffs, protect Macon’s cash reserves and coordinate an overhaul of health insurance and benefit plans so a pay scale can be implemented in the 2011 fiscal year.

The mayor said he understands some of his decisions are “unattractive.” Items such as the pay scale have been talked about for years but never put in place, and the reductions in salary could send some employees below the poverty line. At the same time, Reichert said, others will say not enough has been cut.

“Nobody is going to like my budget,” he said. “It’s hard to put a positive spin on bad news.”

The $112 million budget proposal for fiscal 2010, which starts July 1, includes a $69 million general fund. Both amounts are less than the $124 million budget and $71.5 million general fund paying for city operations this year. Officials said the abysmal economy has driven down revenues even as expenses have risen, requiring spending on a shoestring.

There’s also a major unknown quantity that looms over everything: the tax digest. For the first time since 2001, the county is revaluing property for tax assessment purposes. Values are expected on average to increase by 30 percent, which in turn is expected to generate thousands of appeals and delay completion of the revalued digest.

Reichert’s budget currently assumes the digest will provide almost the same amount of revenue as it did this year. But in reality that seems likely to change, and the degree to which the digest increases affects the millage rate.

So local governments are preparing for two tax bills: The first will go out around the normal time this fall and will be based on a rolled-back millage rate that should be revenue-neutral for property owners. A second bill will likely be assessed around February once a new digest is completed.

Reichert suggested the millage rate will be lowered from its current level during that second billing, but probably not so much that it decreases a homeowner’s overall tax bill.

“This is going to be the year from hell as far as ad valorem taxes are concerned,” he said.

Reichert has made limited plans for new capital expenditures: The administration wants to acquire 30 new police cruisers, three new fire trucks and three new garbage trucks to help replenish aging fleets.

During former Mayor Jack Ellis’ administration, the city went three years in a row — from 2004 through 2006 — without buying new patrol cars, officials said. It is cost prohibitive to maintain a fleet of worn-out vehicles, and new cars can help boost morale in the police department and improve public perception about crime, Reichert said.

Officials also want to buy upgraded software and 150 new computers to replace technology that is a decade old. Becoming more efficient will help offset some of the loss in resources that is occurring, the mayor said.

Before anything is finalized though, it must be sifted through the council, which has final oversight of municipal budget writing. And much of what Reichert is proposing, particularly things that negatively impact employees, has been unpalatable to the council in the past.

Still, the dire financial environment may change that attitude to some degree, particularly if there aren’t other available options.

“I’m of course disappointed that we have to make some adjustments with our personnel,” said Councilman Mike Cranford, chairman of the Appropriations Committee. “But I think they are small in nature with the economic problems that we face.”

Reichert’s plan calls for all nonessential employees — everybody but sworn police officers, firefighters and sanitation workers — to take a half-day off during each two-week pay period. And nobody will be paid for the nine holidays they are provided next year. In all, he said it amounts to an 8 percent loss in pay.

Council President Miriam Paris said she thought many employees were expecting to take some sort of hit. It is better to spread the pain among everybody than to seriously impact a few through layoffs, she said, adding that it appears Reichert has worked hard to present a sound budget that moves the city forward.

“I think he was really very conscientious about not having a decline in services,” she said.

Cranford’s Appropriations Committee will begin its initial review of the budget at 3:30 p.m. today at City Hall.

To contact writer Matt Barnwell, call 744-4251.