Macon-Bibb County won’t get any new revenue from a proposed sales tax anytime soon, as the the state Legislature isn’t going to act this year to set up a vote in the county.
The first step toward a referendum would be bipartisan support among at least three of five the state House members who represent Macon-Bibb in Atlanta. But the idea of OLOST referendum — a one-penny “other local option sales tax” — does not have that much support from state lawmakers.
Democratic state Rep. Miriam Paris filed a bill on Tuesday that would have set up a vote in Macon-Bibb. But her bill is not going anywhere, she says.
In line with a request from the Macon-Bibb County Commission, her bill would have set up a public referendum on that penny-on-the-dollar sales tax.
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The County Commission’s OLOST resolution, approved on Feb. 26, stated that for up to the first 10 months of OLOST collections, the county would use 50 percent of the revenue to replenish reserves. The remaining 50 percent would go to public safety, blight remediation and the library and transit systems.
The rollback of the following year’s millage rate would be based on the amount of revenue that came in during the initial period. The county is bringing in about $28 million in sales tax revenue annually.
The County Commission’s resolution “did give us some sense of relief,” said Paris.
“We wanted to create some trust with the public on where the money would go,” she said.
The county’s reserves has taken a severe hit in recent years, decreasing by more than $20 million between the 2016-2018 fiscal budget cycles.
Fellow Democrat James Beverly also signed the bill, but Paris said she wasn’t able to get a third signature. Without at least one other supporter, the bill is dead.
And the Legislature on Thursday passed a deadline that makes it almost impossible to move a bill that hasn’t already passed one chamber.
Proponents of the OLOST have said it would provide some needed property tax relief after the millage rate was increased in 2017 and 2018.
The OLOST would not only result in a rollback but there would also be a property assessment “freeze” capping how much the taxed value of a home can increase each year.
Commissioner Al Tillman said that members of the local delegation have been aware of the OLOST request dating back more than a year ago.
Some commissioners met with those state lawmakers earlier this year and Tillman says he’s had other conversations with most of them about the OLOST.
“We’ve explained it to them throughout,” Tillman said. “Everyone knows how we got there. The only thing we’re asking for was for it to be put on the ballot.”
Tillman said the county’s financial situation was in part due to some over-projections of revenue but that the mayor’s administration nor other officials have done anything wrong with the money.
“Everyone wants to use an excuse because they don’t want to fund poor people and our (outside) agencies that’s been with us for 100 years,” Tillman said about last summer’s budget debates.
“Last ditch” resolution
The Macon-Bibb Commission and the county’s state lawmakers have been wrangling about the idea of an OLOST since last session, and for the second year in a row there’s some finger-pointing about who’s at fault.
Paris’ bill was a bit of late-arriving bill, but the Macon-Bibb County Commission didn’t make its latest formal request for it until late February.
Tillman said that the commission’s “last ditch” resolution came at the request of Beverly, who wanted more details about how any sales tax revenue would be used before the property tax rollback went into effect.
Tillman placed some of the blame on Beverly, who he said knew it would be too late to get any bill through this session.
Beverly did not respond to text messages left by The Telegraph on Friday.
Another commissioner, Elaine Lucas, said she’s disappointed in the outcome of this year’s OLOST measure.
She said it will be imperative to get with the local delegation at an earlier time in order to come up with something that will not only satisfy legislators but also residents.
In the meantime, “We’re going to work as hard as we can to come up with a way to make sure we don’t have to increase the millage rate for a third year,” Lucas said.
And by the time next session starts in January 2020, there will need to be more consensus among lawmakers for the OLOST bill to pass.
“I know the commission and the mayor and those down in Bibb County want it … but i think they’ve got to get their spending under control,” state Rep. Robert Dickey said.
He’s a Republican from Musella, but represents part of Bibb County as well.
“And people wouldn’t vote for it anyway if we were to pass it,” Dickey said.
Macon Republican state Rep. Dale Washburn said he wanted to see more detail about how any OLOST proceeds would be spent, exactly which funds would receive the pennies, about how long the property tax rollback would last.
“None of that was definitive and I couldn’t sign it,” said Washburn.
The third Republican in the Macon-Bibb delegation, Danny Mathis from Cochran, said there wasn’t any meeting with all of the lawmakers and local leaders to discuss the idea and come to consensus.
He said that lack of group consensus was why he felt like he couldn’t sign the bill.
Paris pointed out that her bill, like others, will lie dormant until next year’s legislative session.