Politics & Government

Macon-Bibb may seek break from budget cut mandate

Less than a year into the consolidated Macon-Bibb County government, some commissioners are asking for relief from the legislative mandate to cut 20 percent from the combined city and county budgets.

A resolution from Commissioner Al Tillman, co-sponsored by Commissioners Bert Bivins and Virgil Watkins, asks for the local delegation to support a change in the consolidation charter that would reduce the required cut from 20 percent to 10 percent.

The charter, written by the local delegation and approved by Macon and Bibb County voters in 2012, says no reduction is required in the new government’s first year, but 5 percent must be cut from the initial combined budget in each of the four following fiscal years. That’s a total of more than $30 million in cuts, according to Macon-Bibb financial figures.

Tillman said a cut that large just isn’t practical.

“We just can’t do it,” he said Monday. The budget that commissioners approved in June already included a $6.6 million cut, due not to the mandate but to a decline in tax revenue. Sales taxes remained stagnant, while property tax proceeds took a major hit from the removal of half the previous Macon property tax.

Mayor Robert Reichert promised to eliminate the city property tax so that all parts of Macon-Bibb would pay the same rate. The second half is to come off next year, which will require a further budget reduction.

This year’s budget cuts were painful enough to show that several more years of cuts can’t be made without hurting basic services, especially since it’s expected to cost more than $1.5 million to equalize pay between former city and county workers, Tillman said.

“I don’t see voting to cut anything else or anybody else,” he said. “We’re going to be talking about jobs, and we’ve already cut as far as we can cut, down to the bare bones.”

Reichert’s administration supports Tillman’s proposal, said spokesman Chris Floore.

“With the cuts we’re facing, we need to explore options that will allow us to provide services and grow the community,” Floore said by email.

If cuts to fire and police protection are ruled out, he said, further savings would have to come from services such as trash collection, recreation and tearing down abandoned houses -- “all things our community expects and deserves.”

“We want to find ways to provide services more efficiently, and an arbitrary percentage won’t get us to where we need to go,” Floore said.

Tillman said he believes the 20 percent mandate was made with good intentions, but some Macon-Bibb workers are already doing two or three jobs, and further cuts would devastate morale. He’d accept an amendment to make the cut only 5 percent or to eliminate it altogether, he said.

All commissioners have talked about the issue, so he’s hopeful the proposal it will pass and draw support from the local delegation, Tillman said.

State Rep. Allen Peake, R-Macon, said Monday that he hadn’t heard the request -- but wasn’t automatically opposed. Commissioners have told him they’d like legislators to take another look at the mandate.

“I’m open-minded; I’m willing to see what they think works in the real world,” Peake said. He noted that the charter already includes exceptions in case of grave economic necessity or public safety needs.

“The purpose of that (20 percent reduction) requirement was to make sure that we had a more efficient government after the merger,” Peake said. “If that’s too much of a burden so that services aren’t provided to our citizens, then I think we certainly need to take a look at that. But I haven’t seen compelling evidence that that’s the case so far.”

Tillman said commissioners should have listened to his co-sponsor Bivins months ago on the difficulty in cutting 20 percent.

“He was talking about it well before we were even sworn in,” Tillman said.

Bivins said Monday that he’s not sure anyone looked at the budget’s hard numbers before picking 20 percent as a mandate.

“I’ve always thought that it was just pretty much unjustified. Nobody gave a reason why,” he said.

Bivins and Tillman said they would challenge naysayers to go through the budget and find millions in further cuts to make.

Reichert, running for Macon-Bibb mayor in 2013, said he would abide by the “spirit and letter” of the budget-cut requirement. But in a Tuesday morning presentation to the local delegation, administration officials will bring up Tillman’s proposal as part of an outline of the required cuts’ impact, Floore said. In addition, the administration is asking for the previous year’s budget to be used as the baseline, not the current year’s, he said.

“That way, the reductions we’ve already made can be reflected in the 20 percent mandate,” Floore said.

To contact writer Jim Gaines, call 744-4489.