The Macon-Bibb County Urban Development Authority agreed Thursday to consider fronting money as early as this fall to speed up parts of a $183 million sales tax proposal.
The vote followed Bibb County’s request to allow revenue bonds matched against a special purpose local option sales tax, if the sales tax passes in a July 20 referendum. Influenced by Macon Mayor Robert Reichert, the development authority also voted to consider issuing general obligation bonds for SPLOST projects.
The move potentially undercuts one of the strongest arguments against a new SPLOST by allowing the city and county to seek funding for urgent priorities almost immediately. Without the bonds, the city and county would have to wait until the main project — an $83 million courthouse complex — has been completed. Among other things, city and county officials worry about a failing emergency radio system that will cost about $12 million to replace.
Nothing, however, is certain. Authority members are asking the city’s opinion by next Thursday, and scheduled a July 12 meeting to evaluate the city’s response. The resolution passed Thursday.
No money would flow faster unless the SPLOST vote passes, a government requests the bonds and the Urban Development Authority agrees to issue the bonds.
Authority members worried aloud about making the organization political but said any action they took — to approve, deny or delay — would have a political effect.
Authority Chairman Bob Lewis said that ultimately, the authority’s action could benefit the city that opposes the SPLOST.
“If it should pass, then at least the city’s got an opportunity here to benefit,” he said.
Mike Cranford, a city councilman and SPLOST opponent, took issue.
“Why is this coming to us now, if not to gain public favor and public relations favor? Because they could have waited until after the SPLOST passed, if the SPLOST passed, and come to you,” Cranford said. “You’re being used, gentlemen.”
Chix Miller, the authority’s attorney, said the authority was thrust into politics.
“The city’s made it known it is against this SPLOST on July 20, so it seems to me the city would have a vested interest in trying to stop this resolution, because this resolution is helpful to that SPLOST. ... There are untold numbers of ways the city might use in trying to stop this resolution, and that does embroil this authority in politics.”
Later in the day, Lewis and fellow authority member Sid Cherry made a presentation to the City Council’s Appropriations Committee at the request of Cranford, the committee’s chairman.
Councilman Tom Ellington said the authority’s proposal sounded like a creative solution to one of the SPLOST’s most controversial issues, but at the same time, he wants the city attorney’s office to research the legal land mines of the bond proposal.
Councilwoman Elaine Lucas, who has been the most vocal council supporter of the SPLOST, thanked the authority during the meeting, saying the proposal would help “cover our heinies” after the administration declined to enter into an intergovernmental agreement with Bibb County.
“We have not been well-represented in this whole process,” she said.
But Cranford maintained that interest rates, attorneys’ fees and other costs ultimately would cost the city more money in the long run.
He gave an example of paying off a $50 million bond with a 2 percent interest rate over five years would cost the city $1 million per year on that bond, and that figure didn’t include the associated fees.
“This increases my angst (about the SPLOST),” he said. “That’s money that could be spent on other projects named in the SPLOST. ... That’s the trouble with the economy today. People are spending money they don’t have.”
In the earlier authority meeting, Lewis said interest rates are low and projects would be financed over no more than the SPLOST’s six-year time frame, making it unusually inexpensive to borrow the money.
While no interest rates were discussed for the SPLOST projects, Miller said he recently had worked on a project that received 1.9-percent financing.
As part of the SPLOST vote, county officials are requesting the authority to borrow as much as $50 million in general obligation bonds for the $83 million courthouse complex. That complex — including a $43 million courthouse, plus a parking deck, juvenile court building and renovations to the existing courthouse — must be completed first under state law.
If the city and county had agreed on the SPLOST vote, money would have flowed to all governments immediately. But city officials pulled out in a dispute over which government will pay for which service, including who will maintain parks planned with SPLOST money.
The county, which has legal control over the SPLOST issue, used a draft of a city project list for the city’s share. About $60 million of the SPLOST will go toward Macon projects, while the $83 million in courthouse complex projects will also be within the city limits.
Reichert attacked the chain of events during Thursday’s Urban Development Authority meeting.
“They would pick our projects and make us wait, because we’re being bad, make us wait 3 1/2 years to get our money,” he said.
Staff writer Phillip Ramati contributed to this report.