Owners of empty, foreclosed houses must register with Macon

Macon City Council voted unanimously Tuesday to set up a registry for abandoned and foreclosed houses, but at the last minute Councilwoman Lauren Benedict cut the proposed registration fee from $100 to $10.

It requires owners of houses which sit empty and without utility service for more than 60 days, and foreclosed houses, to register those properties with the city.

Earlier in the day the ordinance went through the Community Resources & Development Committee, which Benedict chairs. She and councilmen Tom Ellington and Larry Schlesinger cosponsored the ordinance.

In committee, Assistant City Attorney Stuart Morelli said a big problem now is that even when the city knows a bank has foreclosed on a house, it’s “almost impossible” to find out who to contact about maintenance problems and code violations. The registry requires banks or other owners to provide contact information for whoever’s responsible for upkeep.

One incentive for owners to register is that doing so lets the city know not to impose garbage collection fees, Benedict said. By paying the $10 registration fee, owners can avoid having those garbage fees pile up, she said.

The ordinance passed 14-0, with Councilman Henry Ficklin absent.

Pension rule changes

Two changes to the Macon Fire and Police Employees Retirement System rules passed council after months of acrimony, drawing some final recriminations just before the vote -- which drew no audible opposition.

One ordinance changes some legal language in the pension plan to match IRS requirements. That brought allegations, led by former pension board member Charlie Bishop, that the changes were an attempt to somehow diminish retirees’ current benefits. Mayor Robert Reichert’s administration flatly denied any such intent or ability.

Yet Councilwoman Elaine Lucas reiterated Bishop’s claims Tuesday, asking City Attorney Martha Welsh what might happen once city and county governments are consolidated in January 2014.

Welsh replied that current pension plan participants’ benefits and rights are protected by state law.

“Those will continue in force and effect,” she said. “That will not be affected by consolidation.”

The plan could be closed to new hires, just as the city could do now, Welsh said. But as for those currently vested in the pension system, the new government could increase their benefits but not cut them, she said.

Still, Lucas asked Welsh to “research that a little bit more,” and Councilman Henry Gibson added that he’s seen nothing in writing to prove benefits wouldn’t be cut in the future.

“All we have is his word that things are not going to change,” he said, speaking of Reichert.

Benedict said she was disturbed by continued “wild accusations that cannot come true under state law,” and asked Welsh to again state directly that the new government couldn’t take away any existing pension benefits.

“Yes, that’s correct. That’s my understanding of the law,” Welsh replied.

That led to a sharp exchange between Benedict on one side and Lucas and Councilman Lonnie Miley on the other, over who was truly looking out for city employees’ rights. It ended when Council President James Timley gaveled Lucas into silence and called for a vote.

The second ordinance adds a new section to the pension board rules in the city charter, saying that any contract for spending more than $20,000 must be a “competitive selection” and must be approved by Macon City Council.

Bishop and current pension board member Jimmy Hartley questioned the move’s motivation during an earlier committee meeting, alleging that it’s an attempt to end the board’s independence. The board has been a center of controversy for more than two years, and has hired multiple attorneys because some members and pension recipients didn’t trust the city’s statements.

According to the city finance office, during the last fiscal year the fire and police pension fund spent $432,215.19 on outside services such as lawyers and financial advisers.

Councilman Charles Jones, who co-sponsored the ordinance with Reichert, has said that the regulation is needed because the city is liable for keeping the pension fund solvent, so whatever the board spends will ultimately have to be made up by city taxpayers.

A corresponding ordinance for the city general employees’ pension board is to be discussed in the Employee Development & Compensation Committee.

Yard debris

Council approved an ordinance forbidding people from putting grass clippings or other yard debris on city streets or in storm drains, unless it’s piled in the right-of-way as prescribed for pickup by Public Works. The ordinance sponsored by Councilwoman Nancy White also bans blowing clippings or leaves into drains with a leaf-blower. Either act will draw a fine of $100.

White said Tuesday evening that the ordinance will have no effect on curbside debris pickup by Public Works; that’s still legal.

Several council members said the legislation is aimed primarily at lawn care companies that have been seen dumping the results of their work for the city to deal with. When the measure was discussed in committee, interim Chief Administrative Officer Dale Walker said lawn care companies can be identified through business license records and notified by letter of the new law.

The ordinance passed 13-0, with Ficklin and Councilman Charles Jones absent.

To contact writer Jim Gaines, call 744-4489.