Bibb stands ground in SPLOST fight with Macon

Bibb County Commission Chairman Sam Hart predicted “wiser heads” would prevail in the next month to end a Macon-Bibb County dispute about a sales-tax vote.

Hart said in a news conference Thursday that an agreement on special purpose local option sales tax money is needed by both governments. If Macon Mayor Robert Reichert doesn’t sign an agreement, Hart said the county would have to use an earlier list of projects drafted by city leaders.

“It’s critical to both the city and the county,” Hart said. “We can’t afford to let this opportunity pass us by.”

The county says the SPLOST agreement would have to be signed by April 30 to meet deadlines for a July 20 public vote. If the SPLOST passes, it would pay for a new county courthouse among other projects.

But Hart rejected demands by Reichert that the two governments forge a service delivery strategy agreement before the SPLOST vote. Hart said that strategy, which outlines which services each government offers, won’t be tied into SPLOST negotiations.

“I agree with the mayor that we do need to move ahead with the service delivery strategy, but it’s not a bargaining chip. It’s different. It’s always been different,” Hart said.

Recreation funding is a big part of the dispute. Under the draft SPLOST agreement, the city and county would each put $20 million of SPLOST money into recreation facilities. Bibb County wants to take over the recreation department but get funding from Macon.

Hart said Thursday the county proposed a month ago a recreation plan that would save Macon $1.5 million a year, but never got a response from City Hall. The county’s actual proposal from February shows the plan would save Macon about $1.25 million a year but would leave the city spending about $5 million indefinitely, as the city continued to pay 80 percent of the costs of running the Parks and Recreation Department. Macon would continue to run Bowden Golf Course.

Several other commissioners indicated Wednesday that, without an agreement, the county would still build its $20 million in recreation projects, but Macon would pay to run them.

Hart said a letter last week telling Macon it had to pick projects within the next month — or have the county select them from an earlier list — was not meant as an ultimatum. But county commissioners didn’t hold back in their response to a City Council meeting Tuesday, when City Councilman Rick Hutto compared the SPLOST-service delivery strategy face-off as “playing a game of chicken.”

“I think that was Councilman Hutto’s characterization,” Hart said, “and perhaps he was right.”

County Commissioner Elmo Richardson disputed Reichert’s claims that 75 percent of some government costs were taken on by city residents. Richardson said property owners in unincorporated Bibb County comprise 40 percent of the population but pay 56.1 percent of the county government’s property taxes.

Richardson said all taxes from city residents account for just 22 percent of the county government’s total revenues, which includes fees and state funding. And the city benefits from a split of sales-tax proceeds from Bass Pro Shops, Nichiha and other sites where the county government invested heavily in infrastructure without the city’s help.

Macon Councilman Virgil Watkins was the only city official to attend Hart’s news conference. He said he was there to learn both sides of the issues, but he looks for resolution in the next month.

“I’m hopeful, I’m hopeful,” he said. “If we can work out all our differences, it’d be good for the community.”

To contact writer Mike Stucka, call 744-4251.

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