Mayor targets commercial blight, warns of $15 million budget shortfall

Macon-Bibb County Mayor Lester Miller answers questions in the April edition of the CCJ’s monthly Ask Mayor Miller segment

As Macon-Bibb County Mayor Lester Miller puts together his first budget, a major deficit lies ahead.

“So, I’m looking at probably somewhere around 15, 16, 17 million dollars that I’ve got to come up with that the previous administration did not have to. And we’re working on the same budgetary numbers we have as far as money coming in,” Miller said during the April segment of the Center for Collaborative Journalism’s “Ask Mayor Miller” program.

Miller said one reason for the shortfall is the new employee pay scale that comes with a $6 million price tag.

“We have a pension actuary that’s going to increase by several million dollars that was not had before,” he said.

Miller also noted that several SPLOST projects were “front-loaded” without allocating money for debt repayment.

Although the cost of lumber and construction materials is on the rise, the mayor says the current building projects have contingencies that shouldn’t mess with the budget.

“Mostly what’s affecting our budgets is those upfront projects where they borrowed money on and we’re having to pay the debt on them now. And that’s come out of my budget as opposed to my predecessor’s budget,” he said. “And it makes it difficult when you have a balanced budget and you try to budget on 160, 170 million dollars, but yet this year you may have $180 million worth of expenses.”

The mayor is going to look for ways to cut wasteful spending and be more efficient. As one way to cut costs, he cited the decision to opt for five convenience centers across the county for bulk waste instead of building a new landfill.

He also noted the $40 million in SPLOST money yet to be spent on a new courthouse. He believes some projects on the timeline could be adjusted as he weighs options.

“So, there’s going to be several million dollars that are on my plate to pay for the nice things the previous commission did for the recreation departments and things like that,” Miller said.

He also is banking on passage of the OLOST, or Other Local Option Sales Tax, that would add another penny to the dollar. The money raised can fund government services and roll back property taxes by about a third, which could attract new industry to boost the tax base.

To further complicate this year’s budget negotiations, the COVID-19 pandemic drastically reduced the amount of hotel-motel tax and other revenue collected in the last year.

Macon-Bibb is slated to receive more than $70 million in federal relief funds that Miller hopes can help non-profits who rely on hotel-motel tax to operate. That decline in collections affects local museums, Visit Macon, the Macon Arts Alliance and the Cherry Blossom Festival, among others.

“Also, the county has lost money and revenue because of this and we have to make sure we made ourselves whole because that money eventually would go into our general fund to help our taxpayers recover,” he said.

New blight tax for businesses

Mayor Miller’s new commercial blight tax also is designed to clean up the community and make it more attractive for new businesses.

After launching a residential blight attack shortly after Miller took office, he is now identifying 10 properties to initially target abandoned businesses.

“It’s going to start with the blight tax and an inspection by our code enforcement,” Miller said. “The blight tax is up to a seven times tax. We’ve used that on residential so far. It has not been used on commercial blight.”

Miller also is considering a vacancy tax if owners do not maintain the property.

“We can’t allow absentee owners in the commercial and most of these are absentee owners just to invest in their properties speculative and not upkeep them, not maintain them.

A submitted question from the public asked Miller specifically about Presidential Parkway. The retail and restaurant enclave between Eisenhower Parkway and Mercer University Drive has lost major tenants in recent years including Target and Dick’s. Many stores, like Michael’s and Marshall’s have moved to new north Macon shopping centers including one on “gridlocked Bass Road,” the questioner noted.

“As far as Presidential Parkway, we’ve got some really good plans for that area, so I don’t want to talk about that too much, but just to say that we’re in conversations with groups to repurpose that area. We believe there are other alternative uses that you can have for that area in Bloomfield,” Miller said.

He and commissioners need to have a long conversation about current planning and zoning procedures and determine if changes are needed, he said.

“We just need to make sure we’ve got all the tools in the tool belt. And we’re going to be more aggressive on the commercial next because we do feel it’s been neglected for a while,” he said. “One reason I think it has is because people who own commercial property typically have more clout, more money, more connected. And they put up a fight and sometimes people don’t want to fight that fight. But I think we’ve shown them we’re going to take the fight to them. We’re going to make them do what’s right.”

Miller also answered questions about a potential move for the Board of Elections, road conditions and labor unions.

To read a full transcript of Ask Mayor Miller, click here. To submit a question, email [email protected]