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Bibb's SPLOST vote to face challenges

A million here, a million there — and Bibb County commissioners could be quickly overwhelmed by requests for funding related to next year’s vote to raise the sales tax by a penny on the dollar.

Local officials said the July 20 vote will be a tough slog to make. But the six-year, $183 million special purpose local option sales tax still won’t solve all the area’s problems.

Tuesday, county commissioners will begin debating which projects should get sales-tax money and how proceeds should be split with Macon. A new courthouse project estimated at $83.6 million will take about half the money the SPLOST would bring in.

Officials said the remaining money, estimated at about $100 million, can’t fund all the projects. The money could repair and build parks, fix stormwater flooding problems, pay for Macon police cars and replace an ailing emergency radio system.

And the SPLOST money will come only if voters agree to it in the first place. They’ll be voting on a busy day when they’re nominating each party’s candidate for governor. The Bibb County school system this month passed its own 1 percent sales tax but was victorious when just one in 12 Bibb County voters went to the polls.

County Commissioner Lonzy Edwards said the SPLOST can’t pass without “a lot of work.” He repeated, “A lot of work, but I think it’s doable, because I think we can demonstrate the need for the courthouse and for the juvenile court facility. And of course there are other needs as well, like recreation and drainage.”

Macon Councilman Erick Erickson said the city would be in a “world of hurt” without a SPLOST.

“The city has put off so much for so long, there are a lot of capital expenditures that need to be made that there’s no money for,” he said.

But Erickson said he hasn’t decided whether he’ll support a SPLOST. He wants all the details first, things like how recreation money would be split between the city and the county and what the money would do to address any racial disparities in recreation.

Another councilman, Rick Hutto, said the SPLOST vote could be more difficult because Macon Mayor Robert Reichert is also talking about increasing property taxes. Hutto said city sewers are falling in. One failing sewer pipe caused a giant sinkhole in Central City Park, while another threatened to undermine Macon’s levee. For him to support the sales tax, he said, he needs proof that the tax is “prudent and necessary. I have to be given enough data by the city and county to support both their positions, and so far I’ve seen neither.”

FIGHTING DOUBTS

Macon is part of Bibb County, but the two governing boards may not agree on what that means exactly.

While Hutto said the city will benefit from a new courthouse, Erickson said the project should count toward the County Commission’s share of the money.

“The county has done its best to ensure the city has no input on the courthouse, so I guess it’s all on them,” he said.

But support from city officials could be important in passing the sales tax, especially when the vote happens during tough economic times. City officials have campaigned against some previous SPLOST votes. One failed in 2004, while another passed in 2005.

County Commissioner Joe Allen said some efforts, such as recreation, could benefit residents on both sides of the Macon city line.

“I think City Council will go along with that, because they understand the problems. ... Five years (of sales taxes) will not take care of it. Even a six-year SPLOST will not do it,” Allen said. “You’re talking $200, $300 million to take care of the (stormwater) problems.”

David Corr, the leader of Bibb County’s Libertarian Party who fought earlier SPLOST votes, cautioned that higher sales taxes would push people to shop elsewhere, while higher property taxes would lead Bibb County residents to move away.

He said a SPLOST’s success could depend on local governments proving they can be trusted with the money, as Reichert seems to be doing when he announced 31 layoffs Friday. Now, Corr wants to see $4.4 million in donations to other agencies get slashed.

“I think you have a better leg to stand on when you’re selling a SPLOST that you can really cut things that government shouldn’t be funding to start with,” Corr said. “I think if they do that they would have a better chance at selling it.”

Edwards said credibility shouldn’t be a problem. Bibb County gave money from the last SPLOST vote back to residents through a property-tax refund.

“That’s all the more reason our credibility is good,” he said. “Instead of taking money that was left over, we gave it back to our citizens.”

Commissioner Elmo Richardson said the county has a few things helping, from a good track record in the SPLOST that ended a year and a half ago to judges ordering better court facilities. Much of the SPLOST would be paid for by non-residents, he said, while the county simply can’t raise property taxes or issue bonds to build the courthouse if the SPLOST fails.

“We can’t float $80 million in bonds in Bibb County,” he said. “Financially we just can’t afford it. In tough economic times, you certainly don’t want to raise taxes. That’s something we’ll have to deal with. I just hope that we can sell the SPLOST and do what we need to do.”

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