Macon approves memorial bench for Lauren Giddings

Despite some previous dissent, the Macon City Council gave 11-0 approval Tuesday to allow the placement of a bench in Washington Park in memory of slain Mercer University law school graduate Lauren Giddings.

Giddings’ friends, led by Scott Tisdale, asked to place a bench at no cost to the city. A memorial ceremony for Giddings, who was slain in June 2011, is scheduled for Aug. 25 in the park.

When it was first proposed, the bench request drew objections from City Council President James Timley, who said if the city approved it, that would open the door to similar requests from friends and relatives of everyone killed in the city. He conjured up images of city parks choked with benches and memorials.

But Timley didn’t attend Tuesday’s council meeting.

Also absent were Councilman Tom Ellington, while Councilmen Henry Ficklin and Lonnie Miley left before the vote on the bench resolution.

All the remaining council members voted in support of it, and Councilwoman Elaine Lucas denounced unnamed people who, she said, were trying to turn the debate to personal political advantage.

“I am just so appalled that there are some people that are trying to make legitimate concerns expressed by some people to somehow be in opposition to this,” Lucas said.

A policy proposed by Councilman Frank Tompkins to establish general guidelines for requesting and placing any future memorials also passed 11-0 on Tuesday. It leaves approval for benches, landscaping, plaques, artworks and any other monuments in the hands of the city’s Central Services or Public Works directors. Their decisions can be appealed to the city’s chief administrative officer.

Councilman Henry Gibson said he thought some people -- whom he also didn’t name -- were using the issue to prepare a run for office in the consolidated city-county government next year, but he had no objections to this memorial specifically.

“I just wanted to say this was never about Miss Giddings,” he said.

Pension tax changes fail

An ordinance to make IRS-required changes to language in the police and firefighters’ pension plan was defeated by a 7-6 vote, before Ficklin and Miley left Tuesday night.

Council members Ed DeFore, Ficklin, Gibson, Rick Hutto, Lucas, Miley and Virgil Watkins voted against the change, while members Lauren Benedict, Charles Jones, Beverly K. Olson, Larry Schlesinger, Frank Tompkins and Nancy White sought to approve it.

The proposed changes to some language in the city charter dealing with the pension system have been wrangled over for months by city committees, the Macon Fire and Police Employees Retirement System board and a tag-team of attorneys hired by both the board and the city.

Since the ordinance involves a city charter change, it must pass the full council twice to become effective. That must happen before the “drop dead date” of Oct. 4, or else the pension plan will no longer qualify for tax exemption – and pension recipients will face higher tax bills, Mayor Robert Reichert said.

Administration officials have maintained throughout that the changes are minor, federally mandated, and will not change or endanger the qualifications or benefits of anyone currently enrolled in the pension system. Practically identical language passed the city’s general employees’ pension board with barely a murmur.

But some police and fire retirees, led by current pension board member Jimmy Hartley and former board member Charlie Bishop, are adamant in alleging that Reichert is seeking to cut off or diminish their benefits through arcane legal maneuvering.

Reichert flatly denies that’s the case.

“There is no sinister or diabolical plot afoot in any way,” the mayor said Tuesday afternoon, before a council committee that ended up approving the changes.

Reichert offered to talk to anyone who had concerns after the committee meeting. That turned into a yelling match between Reichert and Bishop in the lobby of City Hall, surrounded by retirees, with Bishop claiming Reichert seeks to cut pensions before the city and county consolidate in January 2014.

The exchange ended with Bishop shouting that if Reichert runs for county mayor, Bishop will run against him.

At the full council meeting, debate among council members was full of uncertainty. At one point proceedings stopped because of confusion over exactly what was being voted on.

Property tax rate cut

The council voted 13-0 to set the city’s property tax rate for the upcoming year at 9.7 mills, a one-tenth of a mill decrease from the previous year.

Reichert promised in his budget proposal for fiscal 2013, which started July 1, to drop the tax rate by that amount.

Roasted wall’s fateremains uncertain

Tuesday afternoon the council’s Public Properties Committee decided not to intervene in the long-running dispute over a wall enclosing the outdoor seating area of downtown’s Roasted Cafe & Lounge at 442 Second St.

The dispute is now down to whether Roasted owners can put a foot-wide top to hold planters on an otherwise-agreeable wall of metal railings.

But a permit dispute over the wall is now in Municipal Court, and at Tompkins’ recommendation, the committee decided unanimously not to intervene at least until that case is settled.

To contact writer Jim Gaines call 744-4489.