Politics & Government

Macon-Bibb budget questions abound as clock ticks toward deadline

A file photo image of Macon City Hall.
A file photo image of Macon City Hall.

With less than a month until Macon-Bibb County commissioners must approve a new budget, they’re still trying to figure out how to make the numbers work.

At a special called meeting Wednesday of the commission’s Operations and Finance Committee, commissioners had some of their questions addressed about the fiscal 2016 budget, including how special purpose local option sales tax money will affect the overall financial picture and how officials may have to dip into Macon-Bibb’s reserves.

There’s still a great deal of unknowns about the budget, largely how many eligible employees will take an early retirement incentive package. Because employees have until July 31 to decide, the budget will have to be approved by June 30 without an exact number, meaning commissioners will have to adjust the budget during the first fiscal quarter this summer.

On Wednesday, Commissioner Virgil Watkins questioned both the revenue projections for the upcoming year as well as the level of services Macon-Bibb County departments can offer if their budgets are being trimmed.

“For me, there are still a lot of moving parts,” Watkins said. “I think revenues are over-projected. Services will be affected, and I want to be able to figure out how.”

Watkins asked for a copy of the line-item projected budget and said during the meeting he would offer amendments to it. He declined to specify what those amendments might be.

The committee meets again Tuesday morning, and there is a public meeting to present the budget Tuesday night. Commissioners are tentatively scheduled to vote on the budget June 16, nearly two weeks ahead of the deadline.

Committee Chairman Gary Bechtel said that while he agrees with Watkins that revenue projects may be overly optimistic, he said that without knowing the exact number of retirees, a lot of the budget process will have to be guesswork.

Bechtel acknowledged that commissioners agreed to give employees until July 31 to decide about taking a retirement package, instead of requiring them to decide before the budgeting process was done.

Julie Moore, the assistant to the county manager who oversaw the budget process, said that while 483 employees are eligible for the retirement package, the budget was put together with a projection of 93 full-time employees -- not including those who work in public safety -- accepting the retirement. Moore said the government is hoping there will be more retirements than that from non-public safety departments.

While eligible public safety employees such as sheriff’s deputies and firefighters have also been offered the retirement package, Moore said those retirements will have a lesser impact on the overall budget because those departments will be able to replace retiring employees. The non-public safety departments, however, will lose positions upon their employees’ retirements.

If more employees take the retirement package and some departments are left too short-handed, Moore said, it would be up to commissioners and the mayor’s staff to decide how best to meet department needs.

Moore said about 115 employees have turned in their retirement paperwork, and about 60 percent of those are in public safety jobs.

After Watkins asked how much money Macon-Bibb will have to pull from its reserve funds, Moore said officials currently are estimating between $3 million and $3.7 million, close to the amount that Macon-Bibb used from its reserves to balance the current year’s budget.

Moore said officials are looking at other savings in the current budget, such as spending $2.3 million from Macon-Bibb’s Other Post-Employment Benefits, or OPEB, fund to cover the cost of retiree insurance instead of using general fund money; using special purpose local option sales tax money for some upcoming June debt payments, as well as for reimbursing the general fund for lease pool payments; and saving about $210,000 by not spending the entire budgeted amount for the Macon Coliseum and Macon City Auditorium.

Moore said officials also are looking at additional revenue not previously put into the proposed fiscal 2016 budget.

SPLOST PROJECTS

Clay Murphey, who oversees the Macon-Bibb SPLOST projects, gave commissioners a rundown of the status of various projects Wednesday. Many projects, including the new 800 megahertz radio system, three fire stations, the juvenile justice facility, are either completed or close to completion.

Other projects, however, will need to be completed with future SPLOSTs, he said. For example, while $7 million was allocated in the current SPLOST to stormwater drainage, Murphey said the county’s issues are much more extensive and that money won’t come close to completing all of the infrastructure work that will have to be done at some point. Murphey said it’s estimated that it will cost $30 million to make the necessary repairs and upgrades in downtown.

“It’s in a deplorable condition,” he told commissioners. “Much of it is a patchwork with pipes. It would be a 10-year project.”

Murphey noted that infrastructure problems are an issue across the nation.

Murphey also suggested to commissioners that leftover funds from completed SPLOST projects should be put into a contingency fund to address other projects. That money could only be accessed with permission from commissioners.

Another suggestion to commissioners was to acquire land that was adjacent to other parcels that Macon-Bibb already owns. He said the ultimate goal would be to build a recreation megacenter that would stand out among other Georgia cities and would include multiple athletic fields, tennis courts and other amenities. That’s a project for a future SPLOST, he said.

To contact writer Phillip Ramati, call 744-4334.

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