Bibb County will smash its piggy bank to balance next year’s budget, using up a quarter of its financial reserves and dodging another obligation to avoid raising taxes.
County Commission Chairman Sam Hart, who offered the deciding vote in a 3-2 decision Monday, said the vote was a hard one that will affect county budgeting for several years. He said the economy will grow to make up some of the difference through taxes, but it likely won’t be enough.
“Next year we could have to come back to the table and make a different decision,” Hart said.
Other officials warned of the long-term costs and risks of tapping into so much reserve money.
The vote comes less than two months before voters consider a special purpose local option sales tax question on the July 20 ballot.
The vote takes $6.5 million from the county’s financial reserves of about $26.4 million. It also claims $3.3 million in money not spent in the current budget. Without tapping that, the county’s reserves would have risen to just under $30 million, instead of falling to just under $20 million.
Commissioner Elmo Richardson warned the vote would bring the financial reserves “dangerously low.”
“If there’s another flood or Mother’s Day tornado, we’d be in bad, bad shape,” he said. “I think you have to plan for contingencies.”
Finance Director Deborah Martin has repeatedly cautioned commissioners that moves harming the county’s trust funds can cause further problems, such as falling county bond ratings that make it more costly to borrow money. Martin said the county’s improved bond ratings this year meant a savings of $77,000 just on the bonds that built the Bass Pro store in north Bibb County.
Richardson and Commissioner Bert Bivins favored a plan that would raise taxes by 2 mills, or about 20 percent, in what Richardson called the end of a refund of previous SPLOST money. That would have put about $8.8 million more in county coffers.
“We gave them back the 2 mills two years running,” Richardson warned other commissioners. “You’re going to put this county in the worst shape it’s ever been in.”
The county’s reserves won’t have been at that level since 2004, when the county’s budget was 17.5 percent smaller. The county’s undesignated fund balance also will be cut significantly.
The vote by Hart and Commissioners Joe Allen and Lonzy Edwards also cancels out a planned $4 million payment into a health-care trust fund for retirees. Actual health care is not immediately affected, but the county will have to report a growing obligation on its books. Officials have said the total obligation for the trust fund — something akin to a pension fund — is about $75 million.
Commissioners did unite on Richardson’s plan for additional cuts of $358,493 to agencies. Hardest hit is The Medical Center of Central Georgia, which would get $750,000 compared to the current year’s $1 million and the previous year’s $3.9 million. Richardson took an additional $150,000 away following a $100,000 cut earlier in the budget hearings.
Other budget-saving measures included an additional $56,849 cut to the Macon Transit Authority, a $56,844 cut to the Department of Family and Children’s Services and a $32,636 cut each from the Museum of Arts and Sciences and the Tubman African American Museum.
To contact writer Mike Stucka, call 744-4251.