Finding some relief from the requirement to cut the Macon-Bibb County budget 20 percent within five years topped the wish list that Macon-Bibb officials gave to their local legislative delegation Tuesday.
Mayor Robert Reichert and commissioners floated several ideas: making the baseline the fiscal 2014 budget rather than the smaller fiscal 2015 budget; making the 20 percent cut a final goal in four years, instead of a mandated 5 percent annually; and reducing the cut to 10 percent or eliminating it entirely.
State legislators appeared open to changing the base year, which would calculate the reduction from the $165.7 million total Macon and Bibb County general fund budgets, rather than the current year’s $159 million budget.
“I’ll tell you right now, I think that was a drafting error,” said state Rep. Nikki Randall, D-Macon, who heads the local delegation. Somewhere in the consolidation charter’s 30 or so drafts, setting the base year as fiscal 2014 got overlooked, she said.
Due to a 50 percent reduction in the Macon city property tax, the current budget is already $719,235 lower than the first 5 percent reduction would require. If the base year is changed to fiscal 2014, that will give the Macon-Bibb government about $5 million more to work with at the end of the cuts, Reichert said.
But reducing or eliminating the mandated reduction was more of a hot potato. Commissioner Al Tillman has submitted a resolution to formally ask for a cut to 10 percent, but he said he’d happily amend it to call for no required reduction at all.
Commissioner Bert Bivins, a co-sponsor of Tillman’s resolution, said full implementation of the required cuts would force government layoffs. That would destroy public confidence, since proponents of consolidation assured people that cutting jobs was not their intention, Bivins said.
State Sen. David Lucas, D-Macon, threw the issue back to commissioners. The charter does allow the budget cuts to be waived if there’s a pressing public safety need, he said. It would take a two-thirds vote of commissioners to declare that justification, Lucas said.
“So y’all didn’t do it,” he said.
Reichert said 59 percent of the budget is used to fund public safety: sheriff’s deputies, firefighters, the courts and related agencies. And overall, 80 percent of the budget is committed to pay and benefits.
“So it’s tough to cut without cutting salaries,” Reichert said.
State Rep. Allen Peake, R-Macon, asked for an estimate of what it will cost to eliminate pay disparities between former Macon and Bibb County employees. County Manager Dale Walker replied: $1 million for sheriff’s deputies, $900,000 for firefighters and $1.6 million for other departments.
Commissioner Gary Bechtel suggested allowing the total percentage cut be a final goal, not a mandate in each of the next four budget years. It may take a temporary increase to achieve pay parity, though the government might catch up the following year thanks to retirements, he said.
A related request was for the General Assembly to allow a local referendum on an extra mill of property tax for designated purposes. Commissioners recently sent a formal request for that referendum. In order to hold such a vote in March 2015, Reichert said, legislators would have to vote in the first days of the upcoming General Assembly session to allow it.
In making this year’s budget cuts, “we went through a mess” of debates with outside agencies the government funds, Reichert said. Attempts to cut funds to museums, indigent health care and other services brought angry responses from the affected groups, he said.
He has proposed a public vote on whether Macon-Bibb should impose a separate mill of property tax to permanently fund four functions: arts and museums; indigent care; paratransit service and economic development. That should bring in $4 million a year, to be split evenly among those four purposes, Reichert said.
It also would put that funding outside the budget-cutting requirement, he acknowledged.
“We think a lot of the reluctance for higher taxes is because you don’t know where it goes,” Reichert said.
On the other hand, if Macon-Bibb residents resoundingly reject the idea, that would give commissioners a signal to stand firmer on cuts to those agencies next year, he said.
Bivins immediately disagreed with that interpretation.
Reichert made a pitch for some action on the status of Payne City. Voters in the tiny enclave, with a population of about 215 people, voted 9-7 in 2012 against joining the consolidated government.
“You can leave Payne City alone if you want to leave Payne City alone,” Reichert said. But residents there will have the highest tax rate in the county, since they pay extra for Macon-Bibb services, he said.
At the least, legislators should make Payne City subject to local zoning regulations, Reichert said. It’s currently exempt, which may allow construction of a medical-waste treatment facility or a strip club, he said.
Randall said Reichert was “preaching to the choir” among the legislators present Tuesday. But a vote on Payne City’s independent existence requires the assent of state Rep. James Beverly, D-Macon, who represents the area, she said, and Beverly wasn’t there Tuesday morning.
To contact writer Jim Gaines, call 744-4489.