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The last Macon library will shut down. 100+ could lose jobs. Is a tax compromise near?

Property tax rate put on hold after attempts to increase taxes fail

Macon-Bibb commissioners failed to pass a millage rate increase Tuesday, Aug. 7, 2018. Commissioners voted to table the discussion after rejecting the proposed 4.3-mill increase and two other increases.
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Macon-Bibb commissioners failed to pass a millage rate increase Tuesday, Aug. 7, 2018. Commissioners voted to table the discussion after rejecting the proposed 4.3-mill increase and two other increases.

The fallout from the Macon-Bibb County Commission’s failure to approve a new property tax rate means the Washington Memorial Library will shut down next week.

It also means more than 100 employees will receive notices that their jobs could be terminated next month.

The Middle Georgia Regional Library System posted on social media Wednesday that Washington Memorial, the main branch of the library system, will close Aug. 16 because of the lack of county funding. Three other Macon libraries have been closed since late July.

And reduction of force notices likely will be sent out by early next week to employees who work in the recreation and parks and beautification departments and at Bowden Golf Course, according to Chris Floore, assistant to the county manager for public affairs.

The funding for those three departments previously was restored through budget amendments, but without a tax increase or other budgetary cuts, the county would not have enough money to keep those departments open.

The Macon Transit Authority has enough money to keep the buses operating through the end of August, transit President and CEO Craig Ross said.

On Tuesday, several proposed tax hikes failed to get the five votes needed to pass, leaving just a few weeks before property tax notices are set to be mailed out. Several commissioners spoke Wednesday about the need to compromise but also about the frustration that a new millage rate has not been approved.

The millage rate determines how much property tax revenue the county will receive. The longer it takes for a new rate to be approved could result in a cash flow problem for Macon-Bibb, some county officials said Tuesday.

Tax Commissioner Wade McCord said he could request an extension from the state Department of Revenue if a new millage rate is not approved before Sept. 1.

“I am sure that it would be granted, which covers the process,” McCord wrote in an email. “As a taxpayer, I am concerned about the impact of the delayed cash flow to the county.”

Former librarian Jean Stafford said closing branches is a bad idea in the wake of Macon-Bibb County Commission's passing a budget that keeps millage rate the same.

Compromise coming?

Commissioners will resume millage rate talks at noon Thursday as questions remain how some services could be impacted.

County Commissioner Al Tillman didn’t mince his words about still not having a property tax rate approved for 2018.

Tillman, who was one of four commissioners to vote for the proposed 4.36-mill increase, said he was shocked to see the vote come down to racial lines. Voting in favor of the 21.85-mill tax rate along with Tillman were Commissioners Bert Bivins, Elaine Lucas and Virgil Watkins. Commissioners Valerie Wynn, Mallory Jones, Joe Allen, Scotty Shepherd and Larry Schlesinger voted against it.

“It appeared to me there were African-Americans on one side and the whites on the other,” said Tillman, who is black. “It had never been like that during the five years (on commission). I never vote like that, and I’ve always been supportive.”

Tillman accused Schlesinger of not wanting to vote for any tax increase because of Schlesinger’s plans to run for mayor in 2020.

“It’s disrespectful ... for them to be playing political games,” Tillman said.

Schlesinger, however, said his concern is for the people who live within his district and how a higher tax rate could negatively impact them.

Despite the differing opinions about various millage rates, Schlesinger said he’s hopeful commissioners can find a middle ground “that’s fair to everybody.”

“I represent the most impoverished and blighted district in all of Macon-Bibb County,” he said. “There are so many people in the district who are on fixed incomes. These are the people who really need to be heard.”

The amended $166 million budget was based on a 4.36-mill, or 25 percent, tax increase after it restored funding to the transit and library systems, recreation and parks departments and for outside agencies like museums. Without any tax increase, that funding would be removed.

But that isn’t an option, Jones said. Instead the question is just how much taxes will go up and what that entails for the budget.

“There’s plenty of frustration, that’s for sure,” he said. “We’re going to have to compromise on one of these. I’ve submitted 10 budget proposals as of now, and the last one was the highest at 2.76 (mills). I was hoping they would accept that.”

That 2.76-mill proposal was based on a 4 percent pension contribution for employees, something that would net about $2.6 million in savings over a 12-month period, Jones said.

“The private sector has gotten away from that a long time ago — the defined benefit plans — because they’re not sustainable and they’re not competitive,” he said.

As chairman of the commission’s Operations and Finance Committee, Watkins held a series of meetings to discuss the budget over the last few months.

“I’m to the point that if the majority of the body wants to do what (Jones is) proposing, I think we should probably implement it as soon as possible to get this over,” Watkins said.

But Watkins also questioned how the pension contribution would work out and if the county would be relying on faulty figures to balance a budget.

“It’s too much information that’s been given to us as to why that’s not necessarily a good idea,” he said. “I’m not opposed to pension changes, but it’s slightly more complex and nuanced than that.”

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