Mayor plans to lay off 31 Macon employees by Jan. 15

Macon Mayor Robert Reichert plans to lay off 31 city employees and cut 36 more vacant positions as part of a citywide “right-sizing” effort his administration has been studying.

The positions would be eliminated as of Jan. 15, and three other full-time positions would become part-time, Reichert said. The changes would cut about $2.6 million a year from the city’s books, the mayor told City Council members during a Tuesday evening work session on the issue.

Reichert said the cuts, combined with other measures, will allow him to include a long-desired pay scale for police, fire and general city employees in next year’s budget.

The mayor also said he’d push for a property tax increase by not fully rolling back the city’s millage rate to offset property value increases from this year’s property reassessment.

What that will mean for city tax bills won’t be known until later this year or early next year, but Reichert said he and the council will need “courage” as they discuss “what, if any, rollback in the millage rate we can afford.”

Reichert said he’d discuss all of this individually with council members, but he plans to sign an executive order implementing the layoffs Thursday night.

There has been some question whether Reichert can lay off employees without council action, but City Attorney Pope Langstaff said Tuesday he can. Langstaff said these are “indefinite layoffs” as opposed to permanent job eliminations, which would take council approval.

Reichert wouldn’t publicly name any of the employees or positions affected and said he’d inform those losing their jobs Friday, then make the list public. No sworn police positions will be affected by the cuts, nor will any filled firefighter positions, Reichert said. No department heads are on the list either, he said.

There are “some managers, some clerical people, some technicians and some very dedicated city employees” on the list, he said.

“This is the hardest job I have ever had,” said Reichert, who won office easily in 2007 and quickly found himself dealing with a crumbling economy in a city that already had budget problems.

City Chief Administrative Officer Thomas Thomas, who oversaw the right-sizing process, sat quietly for the most part Tuesday as the mayor made his presentation to the council. Finance Director Tom Barber gave members an overview of city finances beforehand, focusing not only on a need to cut positions but also on several other measures.

That included a push for new revenues from “targeted user groups,” which Barber later said was a reference to a potential stormwater management fee.

“That’s something we’re working toward,” Thomas said.

But Barber said “the key to (the city’s) whole financial recovery” would be a new special purpose local option sales tax. The city has been using proceeds from a SPLOST penny tax passed in 2005 to prop up the city’s budget, particularly to pay for new police cars and other equipment.

That money — about $2 million a year — runs out by 2012, Reichert said. Whether the city can tap a new penny tax remains to be seen, because the Bibb County Commission controls the SPLOST process and wants to fund a new courthouse and possibly recreation upgrades with the next one.

The layoff announcement didn’t surprise council members, who have heard rumblings for weeks as Reichert’s administration worked on its proposal. But its revelation sparked some anger, some resignation and some appreciation among the 11 members who attended Tuesday’s work session.

Councilman James Timley said he expects legal action to stop the mayor, even if the council can’t stop him with a vote. He called the cuts “reprehensible” and said there are too many “giveaways” in the city budget, an apparent reference to city funding for outside agencies.

Reichert said the council is welcome to find that money in the budget and delete it.

“If you find that you have come up with enough money, we can bring all of these people back,” Reichert said.

Councilwoman Elaine Lucas said Reichert assembled his cuts in “a fairly underhanded way” and questioned the hitch in his voice as he announced them, saying “you tried to cry.”

Council President Miriam Paris said these moves are “tough for all of us.”

“I commend you on your work and your efforts toward keeping us viable,” she told the mayor.

The mayor wouldn’t say whether any of the cuts will hit his own staff, nor would he provide a breakdown of losses by department. He did say “one or two” unfilled positions will stay on the city’s books, including an unfilled internal auditor’s spot.

Reichert said besides saving the city about $2.6 million a year, the cuts would save another $900,000 in this budget year, which ends June 30. Those figures include benefits, according to the mayor’s office, and work out to an average city salary and benefits package of about $39,800 per job cut.

The city will realize savings from cutting open jobs because the money that otherwise would have been used for the salaries has been used to fund other city operations, Reichert’s spokesman, Andrew Blascovich said.

The pay scale proposal is still a work in progress, Reichert said. There are three versions being considered, with a cost in the neighborhood of $2 million to implement, Human Resources Director Ben Hubbard said. That’s less than previous estimates for a pay scale, but Hubbard said the lower figure was realistic.

Implementing the scale would give some employees raises, as well as a clear expectations of salary increases in the future. That change has been seen as crucial to police officer retention.

While Reichert pushes forward with layoffs and tries to round up support for a tax increase, he will continue service consolidation and service delivery talks with Bibb County Commission Chairman Sam Hart. He promised Tuesday to get some changes, such as a combined animal control department, in place by the end of the year.

“(The layoffs add) fuel to the fire,” he acknowledged after Tuesday’s meeting with the council. “I’ve got to get some efficiencies through service delivery.”

To contact writer Travis Fain, call 744-4213.