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Staton unveils consolidation plan

ATLANTA — The latest proposal to consolidate Macon and Bibb County includes property tax controls and other measures meant to hold down the costs of a potential new government.

It also switches back to having an elected sheriff handle law enforcement across the county, instead of an appointed police chief. It also calls for a nine-member elected commission to run the government, instead of seven. The commission would be chosen through nonpartisan elections in November 2012.

These changes, penned by state Sen. Cecil Staton, bring him on board in the consolidation movement in a big way.

Now Staton, R-Macon, will try to get state Sen. Robert Brown on board. That will be crucial if the plan is to clear the state Senate and head back to the Georgia House of Representatives for approval.

Only then would local voters be able to decide, in a referendum envisioned for this November, whether to consolidate.

Whether Brown, D-Macon, will support the plan remains to be seen. Brown received a copy of Staton’s plan Wednesday night and said he would review it.

That plan was revamped from a proposal state Rep. Allen Peake, R-Macon, put together, which was based on a consolidation plan from the late 1990s.

There are several changes in Staton’s version, but the biggest may be a new constraint on property taxes. Taxable values on homes — the ones set by the Macon-Bibb County Board of Tax Assessors in a process that sparks controversy and appeals — would be locked in at their 2010 levels or at the price homes sell for.

That means property taxes to pay for the new government couldn’t go up based only on an increase in assessed value. The new government would have to raise the millage rate to increase property taxes instead of going through “the back door,” Staton said.

This would be done through a new homestead exemption, which means it would only apply to a person’s primary home and not extra property or commercial property. Also, this homestead exemption would only affect taxes charged by the new consolidated government, not those assessed to pay for local public schools.

Staton’s plan also includes a cap on increases in the new government’s budget.

For example: In 2014, the total budget would have to be 5 percent less than the combined budgets of the current city and county governments added together, plus inflation. By 2017, it would have to cost 20 percent less, though there’s an allowance for “increases due to inflation.”

“If extreme economic circumstances require,” seven of the nine elected commission members could vote to burst through that budget cap, the bill states.

“Consolidation must, at the end of the day, save money for the taxpayers,” Staton said Thursday morning. “These changes, at the end of the day, allow me to enthusiastically support (consolidation).”

Peake attended Staton’s news conference about the new consolidation bill Thursday morning at the state Capitol. Peake said he’ll need to review the details, but he generally gave Staton’s plan a thumbs up.

“Most of the changes will probably be well received (in the House),” Peake said.

Other aspects of the latest consolidation plan:

n It allows Payne City to dissolve and become part of the new unified government, a change from Peake’s version. If Payne City voters reject consolidation, though, it simply moves forward without them. If Macon voters reject it, consolidation dies.

— There would still be separate tax districts for the current city of Macon and the unincorporated area. Essentially, former city residents would pay higher taxes, as they do now, for some period of time. The bill actually allows for several multiple-tax districts, where higher taxes can be charged if more government services are available in the area. But public hearings would be required before the new board of commissioners can establish those districts.

— The mayor would be elected countywide and make at least $105,000 a year. He or she could serve a maximum of two full, four-year terms. Commissioners, elected from nine districts, would make $10,000 a year and be limited to three consecutive four-year terms.

— The mayor wouldn’t vote on the commission, but he or she could veto legislation. It would take six of nine commission votes to overturn mayoral vetoes.

With Staton coming on board, the consolidation ball is essentially in Brown’s court. With only two Macon-Bibb senators in the state Senate, both generally have to agree for the process to move forward. Then the plan would have to clear the House again, because it’s changed since winning approval there several weeks ago.

Staton and Peake have both put together a map of new election districts for the commission, but there’s likely to be plenty of back-and-forth on that issue.

Also, the U.S. Department of Justice would have to sign off on the lines before they could be put into place.

All that would have to be done before a November referendum on the plan. Then a majority of voters countywide — as well as a separate majority within the Macon city limits — would have to approve the plan to start the new government.

Staton and Peake acknowledged the relatively long road ahead, but they expressed optimism Thursday.

They noted a recent poll showing strong support for consolidation.

They also said recent spats between city and county leaders, particularly about establishing a project list for a new penny sales tax, add strength to the argument that it’s time to turn two governments into one.

“It may take consolidation to move beyond some of these impasses,” Staton said.

To contact writer Travis Fain, call 361-2702.

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