Bibb, Macon still arguing over SPLOST, services

The complicated, intertwined issues of a Macon-Bibb County sales tax agreement and service delivery strategy negotiations have put the city and the county at odds for weeks.

Macon Mayor Robert Reichert and Bibb County Commission Chairman Sam Hart have publicly disagreed about which should come first: a special purpose local option sales tax agreement or the service delivery strategy that’s designed to address double-taxation issues.

But now the spat is turning on Hart’s assertion that Macon failed to respond in writing to a proposal to combine the engineering and recreation departments in the city and county.

That proposal, officials said, connects the service delivery strategy with the sales tax agreement because the county wants $20 million in SPLOST money to build new recreation centers. Meanwhile, the city wants to know which government would run them.

In a letter to the editor in this past Sunday’s Telegraph, Hart said the county’s proposal to take over the city’s recreation and engineering operations was never answered in writing by city officials.

But Reichert took exception, saying he did respond to Hart in a March 10 e-mail.

In that e-mail exchange obtained by The Telegraph, Hart asked Reichert what the county needed to do to get the city to sign off on an agreement to divide SPLOST money.

The mayor responded: “I tried to convey my deep disappointment with the (recreation) proposal that you offered, but I don’t think I did a very good job of it. In my opinion, your offer did not remotely resemble the proposal that we had initially discussed.”

Reichert added that he had hired Atlanta attorney Buddy Welch to represent the city in service delivery strategy negotiations.

About 45 minutes later, Hart e-mailed Reichert again.

“We will pull the (recreation and engineering) proposals off the table,” Hart said. “The discussions you are suggesting are beyond the scope of our initial talks and something I will need to bring before the commissioners for directions.”

Hart said this week he did not consider the mayor’s e-mail response a formal written response. When he said the city didn’t respond, he said he was referring to the absence of a counterproposal from the city.

Reichert, meanwhile, said he expressed his dissatisfaction with the proposal in person when Hart presented it, but he didn’t make a counterproposal immediately because he first wanted to discuss it with Macon’s Chief Administrative Officer Thomas Thomas and Finance Director Tom Barber.

With the county’s proposal off the table, Reichert said, “I couldn’t make a counterproposal. There was nothing to respond to.”

The heart of the problem

The service delivery strategy is a state-mandated agreement that has been extended twice since it was originally adopted in 2006. Reichert says this agreement is vital because city residents also pay county taxes, which means city residents pay twice for services the city and county both fund.

He said city residents also pay for county services they don’t directly receive, such as the county’s engineering department and the patrol function of the Bibb County Sheriff’s Office.

Hart maintains that the service delivery strategy can wait because it isn’t due until October, while county officials need to submit plans for the SPLOST to the Bibb County Board of Elections by late April if voters are going to decide on the penny sales tax in July.

If the SPLOST passes, it would generate an estimated $183 million for the city, county and Payne City. The chief project is to pay for a new county courthouse, which is expected to cost $83 million.

After the city hired Welch, Hart sent a letter to the city threatening to move forward without the city’s cooperation if the city didn’t sign off on the SPLOST agreement. In that case, the first $83 million of SPLOST money would go to the county to pay for a new courthouse, with the remaining money — an estimated $100 million — split up by the city, county and Payne City based on population.

The mayor has refused to sign the SPLOST agreement because he said the service delivery strategy is long overdue. Without a new service delivery strategy in place, the city and county would lose out on state grants.

Hart said the entire conversation was prompted last November by state Rep. David Lucas, D-Macon, who suggested the chairman and the mayor begin consolidating departments to show the public that consolidation would work.

Lucas said the city could be losing out on SPLOST money by holding out for a new service delivery strategy first.

“I think they’ve got to work it out,” he said.

Lucas’ wife, Macon Councilwoman Elaine Lucas, has been pushing a plan she designed for the city and county to consolidate department by department, beginning with engineering and purchasing, over the next 10 years.

City’s hired attorney to meet with county today

Today, Welch meets with county officials to discuss the potential for negotiating the service delivery strategy.

A few hours later, at 5 p.m., City Council will discuss the progress of the service delivery strategy negotiations with the county. Both sides say they’re open to continuing talks, but neither has changed its mind about which agreement should take priority.

Hart said the county is open to doing a tax equity study, but he noted there isn’t time to complete it before the SPLOST agreement deadline.

The mayor said he doesn’t see another way to ensure a “fair and equitable tax situation” for city residents without insisting on the service delivery strategy before signing off on a SPLOST agreement.

“I don’t think the chairman recognizes the need the city has to get this done,” Reichert said. “We just can’t sign off on a SPLOST without knowing who will pay for what.”

To contact writer Chris Horne, call 744-4494.