Hart meeting 1-on-1 with City Council about SPLOST, services

With the deadline to call for a July sales tax vote fast approaching, Bibb County officials are setting up one-on-one meetings with Macon City Council members.

Bibb County Commissioner Joe Allen is scheduling meetings with individual council members to meet with Commission Chairman Sam Hart in an attempt to help resolve a recent rift between the city and the county.

The city has insisted on a new service delivery agreement to help remedy what city officials say is the double taxation of Macon property owners before signing off on a proposed special purpose local option sales tax. The county wants the tax to pass so it can use SPLOST money to build a new, court-mandated courthouse in downtown Macon.

Tension between Macon and Bibb County has been roiling for weeks.

In March, after city-county talks about a new service delivery agreement stalled, Macon Mayor Robert Reichert hired attorney Buddy Welch to restart negotiations. A few days later, Hart sent a letter to city officials saying the county wants a July vote on the SPLOST. Hart said if the city doesn’t sign off on the tax by the end of April, the county would move forward without the city’s input.

Last week, the council voted 13-2 in support of asking the county to delay the SPLOST vote until November so the two sides can negotiate a new service delivery agreement first. The resolution said if the county doesn’t consent to mediation with the city for a new service delivery agreement by May 1, Welch would ask a judge to step in.

Tuesday evening, on behalf of the commissioners, Hart responded to the city’s resolution, saying the county is interested in mediation for the service delivery strategy but has no intention to push the SPLOST vote back to the fall. At a work session with the council Tuesday evening, the mayor advocated city officials coming together to discuss the letter before making their reactions public.

So far, Hart said he has only met with Cranford but has several other meetings scheduled and would like to meet individually with all 15 members of the council. He’s also willing to meet with groups of council members as well. He said he simply wants to hear what council members think, and he wants to clearly spell out for them the county’s position.

Allen suggested the mayor have the same kind of sit-down with commissioners because “we’re all one big family.”

While Reichert said he thinks the meetings between city and county officials are “a good idea,” he acknowledges it’s probably more than a friendly chat.

“This could be an effort to swing the council members over to take (the county’s) position,” Reichert said, “but I believe this is also an excellent opportunity for council members to let the commission know exactly how they feel.”

Councilwoman Nancy White said she’d been contacted by Allen and agreed to “go as a courtesy,” but she had to cancel Tuesday because of scheduling conflicts.

“My assumption is that (the commissioners) want us to back off the mayor’s position,” she said, doubting the meeting will change her mind. “But I totally represent my constituents in this issue. Ward 5 already bears a disproportionate amount of the tax burden as it is.”

Cranford said his meeting with Hart was “all about how we can solve this problem.”

The two also mentioned commissioning a tax equity study to know what a fair agreement between the city and county would look like. Cranford said he contacted the Carl Vinson Institute of Government and was told the study could be completed within as few as 60 days for $30,000 to $40,000.

Hart and Reichert admit they haven’t spoken in person about these issues in a long time — neither could say exactly how long — but they will both be in Washington, D.C., on Thursday for a regular meeting with U.S. Rep. Jim Marshall, D-Ga. Both leaders speculate they will talk about the impasse at some point during that trip.

“Chairman Hart and I are still on good terms personally — excellent terms, actually,” Reichert said. “We just have a slight difference of opinion on how to handle this financial situation.”

Hart agrees that things are better than they appear.

“The public perception that we’re going after each other is just wrong,” he said. “This community is much bigger than just one issue. It’s important to move forward as a community.”

The mayor said he thinks the two can definitely move forward as one, if the SPLOST vote is delayed until November. Doing so would give the city the new service delivery agreement is seeks and give a SPLOST its best shot at success. The extra four months, he reasons, would “give us the window of opportunity to be better prepared and more unified.”

Telegraph staff writer Phillip Ramati contributed to this report.

To contact writer Chris Horne, call 744-4494.