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Macon officials approve property tax hike. But more budget cuts are still needed

Here’s how each Macon-Bibb County commissioner voted on the property tax increase

The Macon-Bibb County Commission passed a 20.652-mill property tax rate for fiscal 2019, which is a 3-mill hike over last year. Here's how each commissioner voted Thursday, Aug. 16, 2018.
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The Macon-Bibb County Commission passed a 20.652-mill property tax rate for fiscal 2019, which is a 3-mill hike over last year. Here's how each commissioner voted Thursday, Aug. 16, 2018.

Property taxes will be higher in Macon this year.

But even with that additional revenue, the Macon-Bibb County Commission still has the of task of deciding how that money will be divided among the libraries, bus system, health department and various other agencies and services.

The new millage rate is 20.652, or 3 mills higher than the previous year. A homeowner with a homestead exemption will pay about $129 more for a property valued at $125,000.

The county will reap about $12 million in new revenue from the increase.

The new millage rate was passed by a 5-4 vote Thursday. Those supporting it were Commissioners Al Tillman, Bert Bivins, Elaine Lucas, Virgil Watkins and Scotty Shepherd, whose reversal provided the fifth vote needed to pass.

Commissioners Mallory Jones, Valerie Wynn, Larry Schlesinger and Joe Allen voted it down.

Following the meeting Shepherd said he did not want to risk some agencies or services shutting down long term because a new millage rate was not approved.

He previously supported a 2.8 millage rate increase based on a plan that included pension contributions but said he changed his mind on the 3-mill increase this week.

“After I got home and got to realizing how many people we would be affecting in the libraries and that we would be sending home without a paycheck ... it became a people issue to me,” Shepherd said. “Now we won’t have to put those people in harm’s way.”

Watkins said commissioners may go back to an earlier budget that incorporated a 3.29-mill tax increase that included some cuts for most of the outside agencies such as museums and some nonprofits. Based on that budget proposal another $800,000 in savings needs to be found to support the 3-mill hike, he said.

“Thank you to everyone voting to move forward,” Watkins said. “We still have a time crunch of Aug. 30 that we need to solve our actual budget. It’s about an $800,000 difference between the (3.29-mill increase) budget and this one, but we still have to hammer” out the details.

Jones said after Thursday’s meeting that he will still advocate for at least a 2-percent pension contribution requirement to help save the county some money.

“It doesn’t make any sense to pass a millage rate when you don’t know what’s in it,” Jones said. “It’s like buying a car behind a curtain. Is it an old beat up pickup truck or a new Chevrolet or Ford?”

Budget saga

The budget saga has played out over the last several months as commissioners and residents debated how much property taxes would go up or in some instances whether they should be increased at all.

The county’s financial problems have been exacerbated in part due to over-projection of revenue, increased health care costs and various other factors. A once healthy reserve balance of $33 million at the beginning of consolidation in 2014 now sits at about $4 million.

A large contingent of people at public meetings called out Mayor Robert Reichert and other county officials for the budgetary problems forcing county leaders to make drastic cuts or raise taxes.

The uncertainty also left the Middle Georgia Regional Library System’s Macon branches, Macon-Bibb County Transit Authority and several county departments in peril.

Some commissioners reiterated Thursday that they plan to provide about $5 million needed for libraries and the bus system, which are reliant on county funding in order to receive state or federal monies.

The commission did approve Thursday giving $238,000 to the library system, which would allow each of the branches to reopen by Aug. 27.

Then there’s the Macon-Bibb County Health Department, which would be in breach of contract with the state without a certain amount of county funding, putting $1.5 million grants at risk, according to a memo from a health board member.

Immunizations and women’s health services are among many that would be reduced or eliminated without enough county funding.

“A loss of funding will result in dramatic cuts in health department staffing, creating potential health risks to the residents of Macon Bibb County,” the memo said.

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