Macon raises taxes, sparing potentially massive layoffs

Macon City Council approved a tax increase Tuesday night by partially rolling back the millage rate to 9.8 mills, sparing the city potentially massive layoffs.

But it wasn’t without a fight. After three public hearings, a contentious Tuesday meeting of the council’s Appropriations Committee and lively debate on the floor, the new rate passed 9-6. It means the owner of a $100,000 house will pay $33.96 more in city taxes this year.

Originally, Macon Mayor Robert Reichert wanted to keep the millage rate at 10.16 mills.

Following Bibb County’s across-the-board property revaluations last year, any city millage rate above 8.951 mills would be a tax increase.

At hearings in recent weeks, the public spoke out strongly against the city raising taxes in the current economic climate.

As a compromise, the mayor proposed a partial rollback to 9.8 mills, which would keep the city from having to make massive cuts to the current budget, most likely in personnel, official said.

Council members Mike Cranford, Ed DeFore, Larry Schlesinger, Miriam Paris, Alveno Ross, Tom Ellington, Charles Jones, Virgil Watkins and Lauren Benedict voted for the partial rollback.

Council members Erick Erickson, Nancy White, James Timley, Elaine Lucas, Lonnie Miley and Rick Hutto voted against it.

To even bring the measure to a vote, Ellington had to make a motion to overrule the Appropriations Committee, which failed to recommend either the current millage rate or any rollback.

Lucas proposed a partial rollback to 9 mills during the committee meeting, but that measure failed to gain any traction.

Finance Director Tom Barber told the committee that $800,000 of the $2 million revenue deficit hit the city in February when sales tax receipts and the franchise fees from Georgia Power came in lower than expected.

State law requires cities to balance their budgets, and Barber said the revenue shortage means the city is $1.8 million from that goal.

Watkins asked the city’s Chief Administrative Officer Thomas Thomas how the city would cover that shortfall if a tax increase wasn’t approved.

“With 70 percent of our budget being in human resources, (cutting personnel) would be my only option,” Thomas said.

Barber said the deficit the city has to make up in the three-and-a-half months remaining in the current fiscal year would equal the pay of about 125 city workers over that same time span.

During the full council meeting, Erickson said, “Laying off 125 employees would be bad, but it might be more right than burdening an already overburdened tax base.”

After the meeting, Lucas noted that her “no” vote during the full council meeting was because she favored a complete rollback.

The rate applies to this fiscal year, which ends June 30, but doesn’t completely cover the budget deficit.

It does prevent massive layoffs and gets the city close enough to avoid the “drastic cuts” officials say would be required.

Reichert said he thinks setting the millage rate at 9.8 mills for the 2010 fiscal year means in practicality that the council is setting that rate for the 2011 fiscal year, too.

Making cuts in the fiscal 2011 budget and using revenue from the increased property tax, the mayor said he plans to create a pay scale for city employees.

Unlike the pay scale previously studied by the council, Reichert said his plan bumps employees up to the pay grade they would have been in had a pay scale been in place.

His plan, however, does not offer back pay.

To contact writer Chris Horne, call 744-4494.

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