Two seasoned politicians and a former mayoral candidate will meet in the July 15 Bibb County Commission chairman Republican primary race.
Chairman Charlie Bishop will defend his seat against longtime former Macon City Councilman Theron Ussery and David Cousino, who lost a mayoral bid last year after grabbing just 4 percent of the vote. The winner will face Democrat Sam Hart in the November general election.
Both Bishop and Ussery are Macon natives while Cousino, originally from Flint, Mich., arrived in Macon about 20 years ago.
Bishop, who was elected District 4 commissioner in 2000 and chairman in 2004, says he has the experience needed for the position and the record to prove it. In his four years as chairman, the county has added more than 4,000 jobs, increased the reserve from $5 million to $9 million and increased the fund balance from $18 million to $25 million, according to his campaign literature. Bishop, who retired in 2000 after 35 years on Macon's police force, said he will continue that trend if re-elected.
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Ussery, who served on the City Council for 20 years, also has said he has a track record of proven leadership. At City Hall, Ussery, then a Democrat, was best known for making recreation issues a priority and was involved in implementing Macon's master plan for recreation in the mid-1970s. He switched to the Republican Party in 1996 after losing the Democratic nomination in that year's race for the commission's District 3 seat. At the time, he described himself as a conservative who couldn't agree with the Democratic Party's more liberal beliefs.
Cousino is running for commission chairman for the second time. He tried to get on the ballot in 2000 but failed to gain the number of necessary signatures to run as an independent. He switched to the Republican Party when he ran for mayor in 2007, saying many of his ideas fit into the traditional Republican philosophy. Also that year, Cousino was found to have fulfilled all requirements of a 2004 bankruptcy plan that he said was necessary after falling onto hard times.
Although he has never held office, Cousino says his common sense and ability to communicate make him stand out in the crowd. Last year's run for office made him more recognizable and will help him this year, he said.
Whoever is elected will face several issues in 2009, including what to do about the Mulberry Street courthouse, how to encourage economic development in the county, when to set aside money to cover a funding plan for 30 years of post-retirement benefits and whether to pursue consolidation with the city of Macon.
Time is ticking for the county to build a new courthouse. In August 2007, Bibb's five Superior Court judges issued a court order requiring that a new courthouse be built by July 1, 2009.
A report presented last year said the 84-year-old downtown building is operating at maximum capacity and has "inefficient and potentially dangerous" working conditions. The price tag is at least $75 million.
Bishop said there's no question the county needs to look for a new facility, and the county currently is looking at potential properties.
One of the biggest challenges will be making sure costs aren't escalated when the new courthouse is built, said Bishop, who favors using a special purpose local option sales tax to pay for the project. If the county took out bonds to pay for the project, the interest would be "astronomical," he said.
"We don't need to finance it," he said. "We need to pay for it."
Ussery and Cousino agree that a SPLOST is the best way to fund a new courthouse.
Ussery said that if the current courthouse can't be renovated to provide adequate space, a new one should be built somewhere between the current location and the Bibb County Law Enforcement Center. Court facilities should be in one central location, and other various public offices - such as the tax commissioner - should be in another, he said.
Cousino advocates renovating the Mulberry Street courthouse as well as using empty space in the nearby BB&T and Fickling & Co. buildings.
However, if a new courthouse is built, the historic courthouse could be renovated into a museum with space that could be rented out for events, Cousino said.
Over the past year, more than 900 industrial jobs have been added in Bibb County, according to the Macon Economic Development Commission. Two of the most recent industries wooed here include Kumho Tires and Nichiha USA Inc.
As chairman, Bishop said he played a part in getting those jobs here. If re-elected, he said he'll continue doing the work he's always done, plus push Bibb to partner with other counties that are eligible for additional federal and state tax incentives.
Ussery said the commission has been doing a great job recruiting new business, and it will continue to do so, no matter who is chairman.
"I don't see it broke, so I'm not going to fix it," he said.
However, Cousino said cooperation between the city and the county is broken, claiming that businesses don't want to locate in Bibb for that very reason.
The city and county should work together, he said, while also tapping into resources from area colleges and churches to make Bibb County more attractive.
Cousino also wants to return the Ocmulgee Indian Mounds, a federal park, back to members of the Muscogee Creek Nation for development - an idea he floated during Macon's mayoral race.
"They would develop a resorted area," he said.
Faced with cutting $9 million from the proposed fiscal 2009 budget, commissioners decided not to add an additional $4.7 million to a trust that pledges money toward the county's unfunded liabilities.
The trust helps meet a new accounting standard that requires governments to develop a plan to deal with at least 30 years of post-retirement benefits for employees. At some point, money should start to be set aside to cover the plan, or the county could face a lower bond rating.
Bishop at the time called the move a poor financial decision necessary to keep the same level of services. In a later interview, he pointed out that the county already has started to fund some of the $80 million in liabilities.
"We're way ahead of the curve (compared to) other governmental agencies," he said.
The liability always has been there and paid out of the general fund, Bishop said. The new rulenow requires that governments report it as a liability, he said.
Ussery said that setting up a trust fund was a good idea, but it is imperative that it's funded each year.
"You've got to fund it every year," he said. "You can't fund it all in one shot."
Cousino said the money needs to be put into the fund. Doing so shows the county cares about its own employees and sends a message to people who might want to locate here, he said.
Consolidation of Bibb County and the city of Macon governments has been talked about for years, but the idea recently resurfaced following Mayor Robert Reichert's recent annexation attempt.
Ussery, who in 2004 sat on a 14-member unification commission that studied the merger of city and county governments, said he's in favor of consolidation, and there are a lot of savings to be had by combining government offices such as personnel and purchasing departments. He related it to a business that's doing well absorbing another business that's not so well off.
In addition, city and county residents need to get over their "us-against-them mentality," he said.
Bishop said consolidation can't be rushed and needs necessary planning. Such a plan would show equal representation for all residents, include costs or savings associated with consolidation and show services that would be provided to residents, he said.
"We have to have a financial plan in place that we can sell to the people of Bibb County," he said.
Ultimately, residents would have to vote for it, he said.
Cousino said he's seen no proof that consolidation would be beneficial to the county and is against combining the city and the county "just to make the two governments as one."
Having two governments helps provide necessary checks and balances, he said, likening one governing body to a dictatorship.
Cousino said he is concerned that if the governments are consolidated, people would have fewer public officials to hear their voices.
Consolidation "sounds logically right, but it goes more into a dictatorship," he said.
Information from The
Telegraph's archives was used in this report.
To contact writer Jennifer Burk, call 744-4345.