Politics & Government

Macon-Bibb committee approves proposed fiscal ‘16 budget

A Macon-Bibb County Commission committee approved the proposed fiscal 2016 budget in a 4-1 vote Tuesday.

After about 45 minutes of discussion, the commission’s Operations and Finance Committee approved the administration’s proposed $147.6 million budget, which will include putting into place a pay scale for all Macon-Bibb employees, cutting a mandated 5 percent of last year’s budget and equalizing the millage rate by cutting property taxes for residents in the former Macon city limits.

While acknowledging there still are a lot of unknowns with the budget, particularly with projected revenues and savings, Commissioners Gary Bechtel, Elaine Lucas, Larry Schlesinger and Scotty Shepherd voted to approve the budget.

Commissioner Virgil Watkins, who discussed amendments to the budget that would have included changing the pay scale and revising revenue projections, was the lone dissenting vote. While the amendments were discussed by the committee, they were never voted on.

Watkins wanted to change the budget by reducing the amount of projected sales tax revenues by $4 million, other tax revenues by $2.1 million and business license/permit revenues by $1.7 million.

Watkins has consistently said the revenue projections in the budget are overly optimistic.

At the same time, however, Watkins wanted to change the proposed pay scale by combining employees in lower steps into one higher step. For example, employees currently listed in steps 1-3 would be reclassified as step 5 under his amendment.

Watkins said he made the proposed changes because he thinks the proposed budget will require Macon-Bibb to dip into reserves. Administration officials have said the city may need to get between $3 million and $3.7 million from reserve funds in fiscal 2016, but they noted that it’s too early to say for certain.

Mayor Robert Reichert said all budgets constantly change throughout the year, no matter how accurate the predictions, because of unexpected costs and savings. He noted that Watkins’ amendment couldn’t be considered because it didn’t balance the numbers between revenues and spending. By law, commissioners must approve a balanced budget.

Committee Chairman Gary Bechtel said the administration and commissioners are facing a large number of unknowns in the budget, most notably the number of eligible employees who will take advantage of a retirement package. More than 400 employees are eligible, and administration officials have said that ideally between 150 and 200 will take advantage of the package.

But with employees having until July 31 -- after the budget is already set -- to decide, officials took a conservative approach to factoring retirements into the budget. The proposed budget calls for 93 retirements of non-public safety employees. (Public safety employees who are eligible can take the retirement package, but their positions will be filled).

At last count, 122 employees so far have filed retirement paperwork, including 46 who don’t work in public safety. Commissioners acknowledged Tuesday they will have to make major budget adjustments after July 31, when the final number of retirements is known.

The budget will come up for the full commission vote next Tuesday. It must be approved by June 30 in order to go into effect July 1.

In other committee business Tuesday, commissioners approved the Middle Georgia Education Corridor Business Improvement District.

The district, the first of its kind in Macon, will run from the Interstate 475 interchange eastward along Eisenhower Parkway to near Macon Mall.

The district imposes a tax of 5 mills on all businesses located within its boundaries for a six-year period beginning July 1. The money raised would be used primarily for public safety and beautification efforts.

As Reichert noted, establishing the district won’t change Macon-Bibb’s services in that area; instead, the money raised from the district’s added taxes would be used as a supplement.

Also Tuesday:

The Operations and Finance Committee approved a resolution from Commissioner Mallory Jones that would allow businesses located in contiguous counties but whose owners live in Macon-Bibb to get a 3 percent local preference waiver when bidding for Macon-Bibb contracts.

However, the measure was only approved after Mayor Pro Tem Bert Bivins added a compromise amendment to the resolution, saying the 3 percent waiver would only kick in if no Macon-Bibb County businesses put in a bid for a contract. Those businesses get a 5 percent waiver.

Commissioners created an ad hoc committee that will work with the blight task force. Bivins will be chairman of the committee, which also will include Watkins, Jones and Schlesinger.

To contact writer Phillip Ramati, call 744-4334.