Politics & Government

Macon-Bibb commissioners face budget unknowns

Of all the budgets that Macon-Bibb County Commissioner Gary Bechtel has worked on, the proposed fiscal 2016 spending plan includes more unknowns than any of them, he said.

“I’ve probably worked on about 15 of these (budgets), and this one has the biggest unknowns because of (retirement) incentives,” said Bechtel, who dealt with budgets when he served on the Bibb County school board, Bibb County Commission and now the City-County Commission. “The staff has a lot of unknowns, and this (budget) is being looked at over and over and over again.”

Bechtel, chairman of the commission’s Operations and Finance Committee, called a meeting Tuesday morning to discuss the proposed $147 million budget and to get information from Julie Moore, the assistant to the county manager who has overseen the budget process.

The big question mark for officials is the number of employees who will take advantage of a voluntary retirement incentive package that has been offered to those who meet specific criteria. Moore said that while officials are estimating that 150 people will accept the early retirements, the budget numbers were calculated based on 100 people accepting it.

Even going with conservative estimates might be problematic, though, because officials don’t yet know which departments will be affected or at what pay scale level the affected employees will retire.

The reduction in the number of workers and overall expenses is necessary because Macon-Bibb County will be losing tax revenue for the proposed budget when it cuts the remaining city millage rate for residents in the former city limits to match the rate for residents in the former unincorporated county.

Currently, the proposed budget is showing a projected deficit of about $8 million, which left some commissioners concerned that they might have to dip into reserves to make up the difference.

However, Mayor Robert Reichert said after the meeting that the $8 million is a very rough estimate that the staff is making based on a number of factors, including debt service. Reichert said it’s too early for officials to know if they will have to dip into reserves, and if so, by how much.

Reichert noted that the city can use special purpose local option sales tax money to pay off debt, which would take care of a portion of the assumed deficit. Reichert said the staff isn’t sure of the exact figures yet because the current budget doesn’t end until June 30.

Reichert told commissioners he hopes current development in Macon, such as the Kumho tire plant and planned development near Mercer University, will lead to higher sales tax revenue than projected, which would further reduce the projected deficit.

Commissioner Virgil Watkins asked to see a line-item version of the budget, questioning how close the projections will be to the final budget.

“I think it’s early in the process,” he said after the meeting. “I have a few points of detail that need to be clarified, like how they made their projections. It’s important that we’re not over our projections, because that’s what leads to problems.”

The budget must be approved in advance of the July 1 start of the fiscal year. However, Moore said that because the retirements won’t be finalized until July 31 and employees won’t stop working until September, there will have to be adjustments made to the budget during the fiscal year’s first quarter.

To contact writer Phillip Ramati, call 744-4334.