Macon's zoning commission is imposing new fees and may increase existing fees 50 percent in response to the county's budget crisis, and that could affect whether companies, particularly small businesses, decide to locate here.
"If it costs more to start and run a business in Macon-Bibb than it does in an adjoining county, and there is no corresponding benefit to locate in Macon-Bibb, they will go someplace else," said Bobby Cleveland, senior vice president of commercial development and acquisitions for Fickling & Co. "It’s that darn simple."
The Macon-Bibb County Planning & Zoning Commission is worried about its financial situation after the county government cut its financing of $800,000 from the budget then reinstated it contingent on an increase in property taxes. The money from the county is half of the zoning commission's budget.
However, it is not known if the county commissioners will agree to add 4.1 mills in property taxes to cover expenses in the county budget. The county would have to approve the new millage rate in August.
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"Not knowing what's going to happen with appropriations, we need to fund ourselves as best as we can," planning and zoning Executive Director Jim Thomas said. "We are living off our meager savings. ... If we don't get that funding, we are out of business."
There is enough money for two more payrolls, and some employees are wondering if they need to look for another job, Thomas said.
"What (the county is) forcing us to do is force us to charge higher fees," he said. "We are going to have to close the gap."
But the problem is the zoning office can only increase its fees a certain amount before "it becomes a point of diminishing return," as fewer people would file applications, and P&Z still wouldn't get the funding it needs, he said.
The three P&Z commissioners who were present at Monday's meeting discussed raising existing fees one and a half times. This would mean a certificate of appropriateness would from go from $160 to $240, a home occupancy business from $200 to $300 and a commercial conditional use from $650 to $975.
"Going up one and a half times is pretty brutal," Thomas said.
These fees would be higher than those in Warner Robins but lower than rates in Atlanta, he said.
The commission is expected to vote on raising existing rates Tuesday. But it did already vote to impose fees on some things it does for free now. The new fees include $25 for a construction release form, $50 for additional forms needed for auto dealers and billboards, $500 for a land use extension and $200 for a permit extension.
Also, it will charge $100 to verify each business in Bibb County is in compliance with its use for each business license renewal, and there are about 8,000-9,000 businesses in Bibb County, Thomas said.
"I don't think we should give anything away anymore," said Commissioner Jeane Easom.
Tim Thornton, president of Thornton Realty Co. said he's concerned about the potential higher rates.
"My knee-jerk reaction is this feels like a back door to a tax increase," Thornton said. "It's another government fee I've got to pay. ... If we're not careful, we'll end up with a tax increase and a zoning increase."
While the increased fees probably won't affect large projects, "the people it would really hurt the most would be the little guys, the mom and pops just trying to start a business or redo a sign or relocate," he said.
"I’ve had that happen a couple of times with a rezoning fee where I went down there with a prospect in hand, and they said ‘no I’m not paying $1,200,' " Thornton said. "If you get turned down or the project doesn’t come to fruition, that money is spent, gone."
Thornton is in a partnership with Miller Health III, CEO of MMI Capital LLC, and they are planning a large mixed-use development called Central City Commons on Poplar Street near the Government Center.
"The last thing we need is additional deterrents for new developments in Bibb County," said King Kemper, a commercial broker with The Summit Group. "Overall I understand their standpoint ... but obviously sometimes we are battling to get people in our community anyway."
Other agencies wait to see what happens
The zoning office is not the only agency having to make adjustments to its budget.
The Macon-Bibb County Industrial Authority on Monday agreed to transfer $70,400 from its reserves to its general operating fund to cover its operations "while this process gets worked out," said Executive Director Stephen Adams.
“We are going to continue with business as usual,” Adams said, adding the authority did not discuss increasing its fees.
It's not clear yet how or if an increase in zoning fees will affect the Industrial Authority’s efforts to recruit new businesses, he said.
Alex Morrison, executive director with the Macon-Bibb County Urban Development Authority, said he didn’t think the zoning fee increase “will make a substantial impact on applicants.”
The Urban Development Authority has not taken any action at this time to address the budget concerns, he said.
Correction: An earlier version of this story stated the incorrect percentage of the proposed increase in existing fees. It's 50 percent.