Paul McCommon didn’t talk politics when he met Mayor Robert Reichert. They just had a chat, said McCommon, a 21-year resident of Macon.
From watching city politics, however, he knows Reichert has had plenty to deal with during the first three years of his four-year term: a declining tax base, the struggle to attract business in tough economic times, crime -- and establishing a pay scale for city employees, a hot issue at the moment. In dealing with those, McCommon said, Reichert has shown competence, dedication and knowledge of the issues.
McCommon had a simple recommendation for Reichert.
“Just keep doing more of the same,” he said.
That’s just what Reichert intends, the mayor said last week -- for the next year at least, and perhaps four more.
Reichert said he plans to run for re-election and will make a formal announcement after the first of the year.
Reichert, 62, was sworn into office three years ago after winning 96 percent of the vote, campaigning in part on a platform of reconciliation and annexation. Neither one has been really successful. Though he’s striven for public harmony, critics say that’s often at the expense of openness. Annexation was turned down flatly by state legislators and county commissioners, but Reichert wants to keep trying.
Just about everyone agrees that it’s been a tough ride. The deepest national recession in 70 years officially began the month he took office. That has forced the city to scale back or delay plans and cut into its work force as revenues shrank.
While those outside city government maintain their distance for now, some council members who face Reichert daily aren’t so reticent. Councilman Rick Hutto said Reichert often rushes his program through in defiance of promises and rules. Councilwoman Elaine Lucas decries the mayor’s handling of employee issues. And even frequent allies aren’t eager to hand him more power.
Reichert said he still loves the job, but the pressures of more-than-full-time work he puts in for $103,580 a year have him sounding a bit like a broken record.
Here’s Reichert in early December 2008, describing his first year in office: “I tell people every day that I grossly underestimated both the variety and the complexity of the items with which I would be dealing.”
And here’s Reichert from last week: “I tell people every day that I grossly underestimated the variety, the complexity and the sheer volume of things that come across my desk.”
The view from here
Though it may be on a back burner, one issue that still burns hot for Reichert is annexation, bringing wealthier suburbs into the city limits. He also would support outright consolidation with Bibb County.
“I think, ultimately, the best interest of our community would be served by consolidated government,” he said.
Reichert attributes many of Macon’s nagging problems to boundaries that haven’t moved much in decades, while people and money have. While residents in unincorporated areas may think they’ve put some distance between themselves and urban issues, it’s “misguided” and “wrong” to think Macon and the county aren’t interdependent, he said.
“Too often we lose sight of the fact that we’re all in this boat together,” Reichert said.
Resistance from Bibb County officials stopped him before. But although there’s no indication their views have changed, criticism of Reichert’s performance is muted.
County Commissioner Lonzy Edwards deferred questions for this article to commission Chairman Sam Hart, who didn’t return calls seeking comment.
Within the city, Reichert set a goal of demolishing 100 abandoned, dilapidated buildings this year. Seventy-five have been torn down so far, he said. Mayoral spokesman Andrew Blascovich said another 15 are ready to go, and the city’s looking to push through 10 more in the last week of December.
When asked for a list of his consistent supporters and allies, Reichert’s first impulse is to reel off a long list of local pastors. High on that list is the Rev. Steve Sawyer of Harvest Cathedral, who said he’s been impressed with the mayor’s determined and consistent effort to connect with area churches on social issues, getting them involved in efforts such as reintegrating released prisoners into the community.
“I would just encourage him to work with that, to continue to work with communities that need to be revitalized,” Sawyer said.
Lucas, however, said she thinks Reichert focuses on high-visibility areas such as downtown and the areas near Mercer University at the expense of crumbling residential areas. What happens in those will help determine how she judges his tenure.
“There’s not been focus on improvements in all of our neighborhoods,” she said. “I’m looking forward to a move in that direction before I can say.”
In day-to-day dealing with city problems, Reichert thinks Macon’s 15-member City Council has too much involvement in administrative details. While Macon officially has a strong-mayor system of government, the council stripped many powers from the mayor’s office trying to rein in former Mayor Jack Ellis. Now, Reichert says, even minor items such as transferring a few hundred dollars within one department to buy filing cabinets instead of paper require layers of council approval, a restriction he chafes at.
One reason that limitation remains is because Reichert’s early practice of openness has vanished, Hutto said.
“This week, we received requested financial data for the proposed pay scale 24 hours after the committee voted on it,” he said. “He is now fond of saying publicly that we are trying to steal his power when we are only doing what we were specifically elected to do.”
Councilman Larry Schlesinger is frequently a supporter of Reichert’s proposals and agrees that the mayor’s hands have been tied to some extent.
“But I do think that just for his own protection, it is important for council to know what’s going on, know what’s being purchased, what the process was in selecting a vendor or whatever,” Schlesinger said. “So I think he has a point, I think council has a point, and I think that we just have to understand that we’re a system of checks and balances.”
A look back
Dominating the view of Reichert’s first three years is the economy, local and national.
“I don’t think any of us really anticipated that the economy was going to tank as it has,” Schlesinger said. “I do think that the mayor has, as a result, had to make a lot of difficult decisions. But he has kept the city afloat during these very, very, very, very challenging times.”
Reichert lists as accomplishments keeping the city afloat financially, and indeed shoring up its fiscal position: improving planning across city departments, cutting jobs, securing grants for projects such as replacing the City Hall roof, altering health insurance for city employees, and settling long-running disputes with the Macon Housing Authority, the state and the U.S. Department of Justice.
But many of those same acts can be interpreted negatively.
“This administration has been very anti-employee, very punitive as far as the employees and their morale,” Lucas said. Employee insurance premiums shot up, and 31 people lost their jobs in the cutbacks, she said.
Councilwoman Nancy White said she hasn’t always agreed with Reichert’s belt-tightening moves -- she voted against a property tax hike -- but thinks the mayor generally made the best of a bad situation. Many positions were trimmed through attrition or retirement, and city employees didn’t have to take furloughs or pay cuts, while insurance costs remain comparable to private companies, she said.
“In spite of significant revenue reductions, he has done an admirable job in trying to put us on a sound financial footing,” White said.
Reichert said last week that he was proud of renovating Terminal Station and having “presided over” construction of the Marriott City Center. But Hutto said that’s claiming accomplishments that aren’t really his. Further, Reichert’s opposition to the last special purpose local option sales tax, predicated on seeking another one this year after signing a service delivery agreement with Bibb County, backfired since that service delivery agreement is still stalled, Hutto said. Local governments can’t seek another SPLOST vote until a year after the July 2010 failure.
Reichert also listed the impending expansion of the interchange for Interstate 16 and Interstate 75 as a victory, but Hutto says the mayor “ran roughshod over council rules to get that done.”
When it comes to reviewing Reichert’s overall performance, those seeking his job might be expected to have some things to say. But Robert Brown, state Senate minority leader and probable mayoral candidate, didn’t answer requests for comment. Reichert’s predecessor and announced rival was almost as mum.
“Let me just say I think he’s a real decent human being. I like him as a person. Always have,” said Ellis, a former mayor. “But this is not about likability. It’s about the future of the city.”
Yet he declined to rate Reichert’s performance or name specific issues on which he agreed or disagreed with the mayor’s handling.
“I am running for office, running for mayor next year,” Ellis said. “Anything that I have to say, we’ll put in the campaign.”
The road ahead
Propped up in Reichert’s office is a colorful poster board showing plans for a tax allocation district along Second Avenue, one of three such districts he wants passed by the end of the year to fund downtown redevelopment. That’s the current focus of his long-term goal to stop the decline of Macon’s population and draw businesses back downtown. More taxpayers means lower overall tax rates, while fewer -- and poorer -- taxpayers leads to accelerated decay, Reichert said.
“That’s the grand scheme: For us to be financially viable as a city, we’ve got to increase the tax base,” he said.
Sawyer, of Harvest Cathedral, said he likes Reichert’s downtown ideas, especially the proposed continuous boulevard between Mercer University and the Macon Coliseum.
“That really inspires me,” Sawyer said. “I know there’s a lot of challenges to overcome to make that happen, but I think it’s a powerful vision for our community.”
White endorses Reichert’s downtown plan, in conjunction with support for housing programs. They go hand-in-hand to make the city more attractive to residents and business, which in turn will pay for the city to provide better services, she said.
“It’s a balanced approach to all of this. You can’t just keep on cutting, cutting, cutting,” White said.
Beyond that, Reichert dreams of a light rail system within Macon, commuter trains running to Warner Robins, Gray, Milledgeville and Forsyth, he said. He’s newly appointed to a task force by the U.S. Conference of Mayors to promote high-speed rail, and he wants to see passenger service to Atlanta.
Once again, Reichert says those rail-transit plans feed back to the overarching goal: keeping prosperous taxpayers in Macon by enabling their commutes as well as drawing well-paying jobs to the city through convenience and livability. While most of those rail projects would require lots of state and federal funding, he speculates about a “value capture” scheme around light rail stations, operating much like a tax allocation district to fund construction by betting on future adjacent development, to pay for a local transit network.
Those dreams for next year and beyond face harsher current realities, such as the looming fight over his proposed pay plan for all city employees. Its critics, including Lucas and Hutto, denounce it for offering substantial raises for administrators and far less for low-level city employees, though Reichert’s staff says its recommendations are based on a market study by the Carl Vinson Institute of Government. Meanwhile, Reichert is also pushing resolutions to skip this year’s cost-of-living increase for city retirees due to the recession. Lucas said she opposes that.
White said the pay scale, at any rate, is long overdue. It’s not perfect but is a “viable beginning” -- and most raises will go to police and firefighters, who have the highest turnover, she said.
The debate continues because the city’s financial problems and its goals of good neighborhoods and economic development remain unchanged -- issues that would be the same for any mayor and council, Schlesinger said.
“The same problems are out there today that were out there when the mayor and council ran a little over three years ago,” Schlesinger said. “These are not problems that are going to be solved overnight.”
How Reichert has dealt with those problems -- his relations with council members and police, and his efforts to demolish ruined houses -- meets with approval from Charles Dunn. The 40-year city resident said he’s met Reichert strolling through downtown. Like McCommon, Dunn didn’t discuss serious issues with the mayor; but now he’s got one message to pass on: Get local contractors with records of good minority hiring to do the planned redevelopment, not outside companies that wouldn’t add to the local economy.
“The only thing I wish he could do is bring more companies here to Macon, build things back up,” Dunn said. “But I know these things take time.”
To contact writer Jim Gaines, call 744-4489.