Politics & Government

Macon-Bibb committee agrees to ask for leeway in future budgets

A Macon-Bibb County committee voted unanimously Tuesday morning to ask for the consolidated government’s mandatory budget reduction to be decreased from a 20 percent cut to 10 percent.

Members of the commission’s Operations & Finance Committee took up a resolution sponsored by Commissioner Al Tillman. It asks the Georgia General Assembly to alter the consolidation charter, which includes a 5 percent cut in the Macon-Bibb general fund budget in each of the next four fiscal years, for a total cut of 20 percent.

“I just want to personally thank all the commissioners for seeing and recognizing that there is a concern,” Tillman said. “My No. 1 concern is, consolidation was not based just upon the 20 percent reduction. Consolidation was also based upon retaining all of our employees and bringing our law enforcement pay to equality.”

Tuesday’s vote shows that elected officials are keeping public employees in mind, he said.

“They need to know, coming from commissioners, that we are taking every step to make sure their jobs are safe and protected, and they don’t need to worry about them,” Tillman said.

Many officers of the former Macon Police Department didn’t support consolidation and are now calling for equality in pay with Bibb County sheriff’s deputies, he said. Police officers became deputies when the city and county governments merged in January.

But it’s only because of consolidation that pay equalization -- meaning a raise for some former Macon officers -- is even an issue, Tillman said.

A pay plan is being prepared to address pay disparities between former city and county employees. County Manager Dale Walker has estimated it will take about $3.5 million to deal with inequities in pay in all departments, including in the sheriff’s office and fire department.

Commissioners met Nov. 18 with most members of the local legislative delegation to talk about priorities for the upcoming General Assembly session. The proposed change in the required budget cut was the main point of discussion at that meeting.

Commissioner Gary Bechtel said he thinks legislators agreed at that meeting to change the baseline for calculating the budget cut from the current year’s budget to the previous year’s.

Even if the required percentage cut remains the same, the government would have about $5.4 million more to work with at the end of the required cuts, according to budget documents.

State Rep. Nikki Randall, D-Macon, said Nov. 18 that setting this year’s budget as the baseline was “a drafting error” that occurred somewhere in the 30-odd drafts of the consolidation charter.

Though no cut was required in this budget year, the first Macon-Bibb budget has already shrunk below the previous combined city and county general fund, due largely to the elimination of half the former city’s property tax. The current general fund budget is $719,235 lower than the first 5 percent reduction would require.

The rest of that property tax will roll off next year, Mayor Robert Reichert has pledged, further reducing government revenue.

Tillman said Tuesday afternoon that Macon-Bibb needs to sell Bowden Golf Course, which is now heavily subsidized. He also wants to let a developer convert the Willie C. Hill Government Center Annex into apartments and shops, to further cut spending and shore up revenue.

Commissioner Mallory Jones said he agrees with reducing the percentage cut from 20 to 10 percent, but it shouldn’t drop below that, even though some commissioners have expressed willingness to eliminate it entirely.

“Many, many people” voted for consolidation based on the assurance it would save money, he said.

In contrast, Commissioner Bert Bivins said at the Nov. 18 meeting that making the currently mandated cuts would destroy public confidence, since it would require layoffs and a corresponding reduction in services.

On Tuesday, at Bechtel’s suggestion, Reichert agreed to write a letter accompanying the resolution, which commissioners can sign.

The resolution, along with other items committees approved Tuesday, will be up for a final vote by the full commission Dec. 9.

To contact writer Jim Gaines, call 744-4489.