Macon-Bibb budget passes, but so could services
A new Macon-Bibb County budget would lead to the shutdown of libraries and more than 100 employees losing their jobs if changes are not made in the upcoming weeks.
The County Commission voted 6-3 Tuesday in favor of a $149 million budget that does not include a property tax increase. The budget, however, cuts out $10 million for outside agencies such as the Middle Georgia Regional Library and more than $2 million for the bus system.
Macon-Bibb County Parks and Recreation and Parks and Beautification departments would also close at the end of July, leaving roughly 100 employees looking for work elsewhere. Bowden Golf Course would also close as well.
Commissioners Virgil Watkins, Elaine Lucas and Bert Bivins voted against the budget.
"I don’t know what can you think you kicked down the road, but that’s 100 people in two departments that are internal, 72 people that work for the Transit Authority ... books that are about to dry out ... if you don’t want to raise the millage rate," Watkins said after the vote.
But by having approved a budget before the start of the new fiscal year on Sunday, it keeps the county from entering "uncharted waters," county officials said.
Commissioners will be able to make changes in the coming weeks and months to the budget. The commission will have to set the millage rate by mid-August, which leaves roughly 45 days to determine how much property tax revenue would be coming in.
Mayor Robert Reichert, whose first proposed budget included a 3.7 mill increase, said he's optimistic there will be budget adjustments made in time for the millage vote. An additional 3.7 mills would have meant about $14 million in additional revenue.
"Any budget that is adopted today would be better than no budget," he said. "With no budget, we’re sailing into uncharted waters, and we don’t know exactly what we would do."
Several other budgets with proposed millage rate increases from 2.25-3.229 failed to get enough votes to pass on Thursday.
Commissioner Larry Schlesinger said the board needs to see if it can find a way to prevent recreation and parks departments from bearing the brunt of the burden.
"Perhaps other departments need to be included in the hits, and you need to have 5 percent belt tightening or 10 percent belt tightening across the board," he said.
The budget vote came at the end of a two-plus hour meeting that at points became contentious and in one instance some commissioners were accused of “politicking” by Commissioner Joe Allen.
Over the last seven weeks, commissioners have gone back and forth on whether employees should have to contribute to pensions, how much money “outside” agencies such as Meals on Wheels, Keep Macon-Bibb Beautiful and museums should receive, and if employees should get three unpaid holidays.
The county has about $102 million tied into “legacy” commitments, such as pension benefits, as well as for public safety and courts.
"You’re only left with a little bit of money that’s discretionary that you can move around," Lucas said. "It’s a very little pot of money that we’re dealing with. Therefor it’s a very difficult decision."
The county's reserve coffers have taken a major hit since consolidation, going from $33 million in 2014 to about $4 million by the end of June.
One problem, an auditor has stated, has been the over-projection of revenues since Macon and Bibb consolidated in 2014.
This year's budget shortfall came in part due to rising healthcare costs.
The 2019 budget also will have to account for a post-employment benefit fund running out of money in December, meaning $4 million will need to be paid from the general fund.
There's also more money needed to operate new fire stations and cover a full year of pay raises for firefighters and deputies.