Politics & Government

Macon-Bibb commissioners reluctantly OK new Kumho deal

Still smarting from the Bibb County school board’s reworking of a proposed contract that’s key to Kumho Tire building a tire plant here, the Macon-Bibb County Commission begrudgingly agreed to a plan that gives the school board more money.

Commissioners had previously approved a deal that would have equally split Kumho’s $27 million in payments over 20 years -- which would be in lieu of taxes -- among the commission, school board and Industrial Authority.

But in a 4-3 vote last week, the school board signed off on an altered contract. The board changed the terms to give the school system 45 percent of the money instead of its original 33.3 percent.

School board members said the commission and Industrial Authority could split the remaining 55 percent any way they saw fit.

Working under a tight time table, the commission unanimously agreed to the agreement’s new terms.

“We had no choice,” Commissioner Elaine Lucas said after the vote. “Ultimately, we had to vote yes.”

Later Monday, the Macon-Bibb County Industrial Authority unanimously approved the revised document. All three entities signing off on the deal paves the way for a Bibb County Superior Court judge to give an order to issue bonds for the Kumho plant project.

As an incentive to build a tire plant in Macon, Kumho was offered the opportunity to make payments rather than pay property taxes on its proposed $600 million facility, which will bring more than 450 jobs to the area. Construction is set to begin in the first quarter of 2016, and the payments are scheduled to start in 2017.

During Monday’s commission meeting, several commissioners expressed their frustrations with the school board. Commissioners said they had no choice but to approve the revisions, because they didn’t want to risk the deal not going through.

Commissioners Lucas, Virgil Watkins, Al Tillman and Mallory Jones indicated they would have voted against the plan had it not been for the narrow window of time to complete the contract. Kumho wants the deal in place by Dec. 31.

“Why (does the school board) have the right to change it?” Lucas asked during the meeting. “Who did all of the work? ... Why would anyone jeopardize this? It sends a terrible message to Kumho.”

School board members Jason Downey and Lester Miller attended the commission meeting. In her criticism, Lucas specifically referred to comments Downey made to the media last week after the vote. He said it wasn’t the school board’s job to help fund the Industrial Authority. Downey declined to comment after Monday’s meeting.

“It was amazing to me to see another elected official say that,” Lucas said. “What I heard and what I saw, I couldn’t believe it.”

Watkins asked county attorneys for an accounting of how much money already had been spent on the deal and who spent it. He was informed that a little more than $5 million had been spent, including $3.8 million by the former Bibb County government and $1.5 million by the Industrial Authority. The federal and state government and the Macon Water Authority also contributed to the deal, but Watkins noted that the school district didn’t.

“You didn’t mention the school board,” Watkins said. “So the smallest person at the table is getting the biggest piece.”

Tillman said the school board was “taking advantage of this opportunity” because of the timing of the deal being so close to the end of the year.

“If it doesn’t get approved, nobody gets anything, and that’s not fair,” he said before the vote.

Jones tried to offer an amendment to change the split. He proposed that the school district get 37 percent while the county and the authority would each get the remaining 31.5 percent, but that motion ultimately failed.

However, Commissioner Gary Bechtel, a former school board member, said he understood the school board’s position since previous similar payments have never included the Industrial Authority.

“I understand the school system’s concerns,” he said. “If I was still on the (school) board, I don’t know if I’d have felt any different. Economic development is (the county’s) responsibility and will remain our responsibility. They have a different responsibility.”

Another aspect of the deal that was changed by the school board and also was approved by commissioners is how the authority can spend its money from Kumho. Originally, the proposal called for the Industrial Authority to use the money to acquire land for future development and potentially fund its own operation should county funding cease. Finding other sources of revenue was a directive former Bibb County Chairman Sam Hart had given the authority.

But the school board changed the language, saying the money can only be used for land acquisition. Authority Chairman Cliffard Whitby said the authority was willing to compromise for the sake of completing the deal with Kumho.

“This was truly the eleventh hour,” he said. “We couldn’t risk (the deal) -- not when it was this close.”

In other Macon-Bibb County business Monday, commissioners approved three Tax Allocations Districts, which were amended from a previous vote. Initially, the county sought to include the value of a hotel that will be built within one of the districts, which would have raised the value of bonds to a total of about $8.7 million.

However, county attorneys, citing state law, said the value of the hotel and other projects that haven’t been completed couldn’t be counted because it hasn’t been built yet.

Therefore, the value of the bonds for the districts was changed to a total of $3.3 million.

Also Monday, the Industrial Authority authorized issuing $10 million in bonds for Bayview Food Products & Mr. Chips Inc. The company makes pickles and other products.