Mayor Miller explains property tax cuts, redistricting, bond financing, blight

Macon-Bibb County’s mayor answers the public’s questions each month through the Center for Collaborative Journalism

Grant Blankenship - Georgia Public Broadcasting

Macon-Bibb County Mayor Lester Miller answers the public’s questions monthly. Send inquiries to [email protected].

Each month, the Center for Collaborative Journalism takes the public’s questions and concerns to Macon-Bibb County Mayor Lester Miller. Submit inquiries to [email protected]. Here is a transcript of the mayor’s answers for November:


Liz Fabian CCJ: [00:01:25] Thank you, Mayor Miller for joining us for this November edition of Ask Mayor Miller. You know, in the lull of the holiday season, there’s just a little break in county commission meetings, but you recently appointed the ad hoc committee to redraw district lines based on the 2020 census. So what are you seeing as the challenges in the current districts and opportunities for improvement?

Mayor Miller: [00:01:46] Well, I’m not sure there’s any challenges right now, but what we’re looking forward to doing is finding out from the state the population shifts that we’ve had in Macon-Bibb County to see if it affects any district lines. Could be that the lines remain the same. But I do have some commissioners that expressed some issues in their areas where they feel a little bit disconnected from their constituents, and they’ve asked to look at those areas to see if they could, if we could draw the lines in a little better way. So we’re going to do that. We wanted to be open and transparent, form a committee together, travel to Atlanta to get on the software that they have to look at any deviations they may have had in our population, as well as all other types of things like race and, you know, et cetera. So I think that the main thing we want to take out of this is we want a open and fair process and we wanted to be included, the commissioners. So we made sure we had a variety of commissioners, both young and old, black and white, male and female, Republicans and Democrats. And I think we’ve got a good group going there and we’ll bring back the district maps suggestions for our our committee as a whole. So we’re looking forward to doing that. Our plan is to go in the next week, be back by December the 7th with a proposal for a commission to decide as a whole.

Liz Fabian CCJ: [00:03:02] And then, of course, it goes to the Legislature and it all has to be ready by March.

Mayor Miller: [00:03:06] Right? Well, they actually want it ready by January the 31st when they’re back in session and they’re going to vote on those as local acts to approve those. The danger is, and some commissioners realize that if we choose to do nothing, then the district may be created by the local delegation or the state without any input. So we want to make sure we had the input, let them know what our concerns are. But I’m interested in getting all the information myself to look and see where our population is in Macon to see if there’s any changes that are needed.

Bond financing

Liz Fabian CCJ:  Now plans are progressing for the Urban Development Authority to issue the $40 million in bonds for the Macon Mall improvements, and the Industrial Authority’s also considering $500 million in bonds for the Brightmark plastics recycling plant. So what do you see as the benefits of using bonds for public and private projects? And, what are the liabilities?

Mayor Miller: [00:03:56] Well, every, every, I guess every project carries different liabilities. The $40 million liability is very minimal at best. It’s a good way to go in the public market to market bonds, revenue bonds to raise money. Right now, we’re in a perfect situation because our interest rates are so low. These bonds, you’re looking at are about three percent interest rate, which is really good, if you do the taxable. The nontaxable, you can get a little bit less expensive than that. But this, this allows us to get a large lump sum of money and have this particular bonds get paid back with rent rolls that we already have coming in place. So it’s really a, it’s a very unique way to do things, and I think it’s something very beneficial to Macon. This is private investment because a lot of these bonds will be paid back from rent rolls, from the venue itself at the mall. And of course, the county has some departments we’re going to be putting at the Macon Mall, ourselves. Those functions will never go away, so they’re always going to be there, we’re always going to be paying rent somewhere. And what better place to pay rent to yourself? And, uh, instead of paying a third party, um, for rent, we can actually pay ourselves for that. So, board of elections is never going away. We’re always going to have a board of elections so you can rely on that income and that budget every year. Planning and Zoning is not going away. You can rely on that income. Those types of things are always going to be something that’s consistent in our community that’s needed. So we know there’s always going be a constant revenue stream there for rent, which makes the obligations to me very, very simple on a bond. You know, the other things like your Brightmark and other potential ventures there, you know, if that still happens and we’re still able to move that project forward. All these pretty much are self-sufficient. They pay for themselves, and there’s very little risk at all to the community.

Blight measures

Liz Fabian CCJ: [00:05:53] Now, blight has been an issue we’ve been talking about for 11 months now. What are the next steps for blighted properties? A subsouth man is tired of seeing that empty service station next to the Wendy’s on Hartley Bridge Road, and another gentleman on Facebook is concerned about a lot next to Linwood Cemetery in Pleasant Hill that he feels will become overgrown. So what are your next steps in the mission to clean things up?

Mayor Miller: [00:06:19] Well, and regarding the one on Hartley Bridge Road, he’ll be, you know, be nice for him to know that that will be coming down in the next month. They’ve already hired a third party after they received my blight letter to remove that property, that structure there. We do anticipate a new business is going there in the very near future, but they were not quite on the same timeline as I was to get rid of it. So we sent a letter to the owner. He’s been in contact with my office every week to make sure that, uh, he can get that down in a reasonable time. I’ve spoken with the person who is going to be taking that, the company that is going to take that gas station down and they let me know that it’s going to happen before the end of the year. So we’re moving on those issues as well. A couple of things, is we’ve taken out, removed about 75 blighted structures this year ourselves. We don’t own those properties. Most of those properties have contained asbestos or lead pain, had residential fires there, and they’re a danger to the community. So I’d much rather have that house removed and had a lot there that’s not being used, even if it’s overgrown as opposed to have something that a child could go in and get hurt. Or perhaps another fire get started to wipe out a neighborhood or the criminal activity that we’ve seen time and time again, where criminals hide in those places, do drugs, prostitution and other things. We do have a long term plan. Once we remove these houses, we’re going to look back at the the layout of the land to see if we can group some of these together in our hopes is to use some of next ARP money for revolving loan funds to allow people to borrow money at a low interest rate to build new homes in these areas. So we don’t want a lot of vacant property out there. But right now we don’t own these homes. We’re just placing liens on them when we take them down because they’re so dangerous. At some point in time, we may own those properties or put them up for sale or execute on our liens. But we want to do those in a very strategic way to benefit our community the best way we can. And I think to do so would allow them to – prices have come down on building a little bit in the next year and to have some low interest money that we get that we can loan out there for people to reinvest into neighborhoods.

Cemetery upkeep

Liz Fabian CCJ: [00:08:19] During the holiday season, many families are going to take a trip to the graveside, and many cemeteries fall into disrepair these days. The Reichert Administration, the prior administration, was in talks with Riverside Cemetery to accept that into county maintenance. But what is the status of that negotiation? Is that still a deal that’s being talked about? And do you have plans for taking on any other of the neglected cemeteries in town?

Mayor Miller: [00:08:46] Well, Riverside Cemetery is already going to be ours. That’s pretty much a done deal. We are working on ways that we can take care and maintain all the cemeteries that we either have or have inherited. You have to really make a tough choice sometimes where you’re going to get this now when it’s not in such a bad state or disrepair, knowing that the future is probably going to be cremation, you’re not going to have a lot of our, you know, the business is a dying business, no pun intended, but it’s a dying business and basically a lot of people are being cremated. You’re having less property at this time people are spending less money on lots and it makes it very difficult for a person to stay in business operating this type of location. So the county is de facto having taken over these. We didn’t ask for a lot of these cemeteries, but we’re stuck with doing that. And you have to try to figure out the best way to use taxpayers’ money. You know, we had complaints last year on several cemeteries not being kept properly. And I can agree that that was probably the case. A lot of it was pandemic related because there’s not enough help there. Some of the folks that were cutting our grass, like the jail inmates, were not allowed for 18 months. And then some of the landscaping companies we had did not renew their contracts so they cannot fulfill their obligations. They terminated their contracts with Macon-Bibb County. A lot of our parks, as well as cemeteries, and say we can’t get the staff, we can’t get the equipment, we can’t get our equipment maintained, therefore, we can’t do this job, which left us in a situation of not being able to handle that job. We’ve since hired a third party company that will cut the grass on a regular basis. They won’t keep it manicured like the Masters, but certainly they’ll start from end and go to the other to maintain these. It’s a loss leader, but something I think we’re obligated to do for our community and we’re going to do our very best to do that. Of course, if it’s your loved one there and the grass is overgrown on a day that you choose to go visit there, it’s very emotional for you. But I just, you know, ask for patience. It’s something we’re working on. It’s on our radar. But you have to decide at some point in time if you’re going to cut that grass four times there at the cemetery or are you going to cut it at least once or twice on the main roadways and lead to economic development that come in our community and are seen every day? Because, quite honestly, we didn’t ask to go into the cemetery business. We inherited these. These are things are not typically budgeted for, although we did put additional money in our budget this year. So it’s a work in progress, but I do see some, some light at the end of the tunnel.

Liz Fabian CCJ: [00:11:07] And you said at the beginning that we do have Riverside now as our property that has gone through, or?

Mayor Miller: [00:11:12] Well, it’s about 95 percent. We’ve reached an agreement on that. There’s a few details we’ll work out on there on some property that are surrounding that area. It has to go through the state because there is a trust fund set up for that, where money would have to be transferred to the county. That’s the only discussion that we’ve had is how to navigate the final arrangements to get the money from the, from the trust because we’re going to use a lot of that money that they have in their account now to help maintain that over over several times. And we’re going to try to pull the resources there at Rose Hill and at Riverside since they’re closely connected. And there’s also still some lots that’s going to be sold out there. So you have to come up with a mechanism of who’s going to be responsible for selling those lots, opening, closing and things like that. But we’re pretty much, you know, 95 percent sure that we’re going to be having Riverside Cemetery and all those parcels that come with that property and everything will be worked out in the very near future.

Tire dumping

Liz Fabian CCJ: [00:12:05] One of the recurring issues facing the community, too, is the proliferation of the discarded used tires. Can you explain what your administration is doing? I know you’ve just unveiled a new plan. That’s something that it seems to keep happening, and we put cameras up in different places. So well, what’s the status right now? What’s the plan going forward?

Mayor Miller: [00:12:25] Well, it has continued to happen, but actually it’s less than before. So we do have a little bit of encouragement there, but really just unroll this, or rolled out the ordinances this year and we began to start advising the public, I think around June of this year, to let these tire companies know we’re serious about this. You’re going to face fines. We’ve done some trial, you know, trial and error kind of practice there with cameras to catch folks. And we were prosecuting those now and there will be some things coming on that. But the main thing is the manifestoes that these tire companies have to fill out incomplete and code enforcement to check on these things. For instance, you may get rid of a few tires at your house and throw them on the side of the road or go to a place that you’ve seen other tires out and consider that’s a dumping ground, but the majority we get are from businesses that don’t properly dispose of their tires in a legal and ethical manner. They hire a shade tree person to pick ’em, pick their tires up and supposedly take them to a reliable endgame and and they dump them on the side of a road in our communities because a lot of times they think they can do that and they disrespect them. Those are several hundred tires that we find. And once you have, you know that many people just continue to dump. They say, well, somebody will pick them up so they go by and throw theirs there, and they continue and continue to do that, so it gets out of hand. One of the things we’re doing on December 11th is having a tire amnesty day where everybody can bring their tires free of charge to a central location downtown at 900 11th Street, and they can drop those off at no charge. There’s no limit that they can drop off as long as they’re Bibb County resident. And if they’re unable to provide transportation to get down there, we’ll actually dispose of four tires for free, and they can go on See, Click, Fix and we’ll pick those tires up at their home so they don’t just discard them or leave them out by their trash can that won’t get picked up. So we’re taking all the steps, I think, necessary to get rid of this problem. There’s going to be more arrests, I anticipate, but our code enforcement is conducting various things and they’ll be checking your manifestos at every tire distributor in Macon that’s under our ordinance and making sure that we track those tires from the time they get into that location, to the time they leave to make sure they’re going to the proper place. So I think after you get fined $25 a tire, that’s going to be very expensive. And I think they’re going to do things right away. And we may have to make an example of a few people right off the bat and let people know we’re serious about this.

OLOST implementation

Liz Fabian CCJ: [00:14:47] Anything else you’d like to add this month?

Mayor Miller: [00:14:49] Wow. Well, we we’re very excited about the OLOST. I think since the last time we were here, the OLOST had not passed. I think the community gave an ultimatum and am encouraged by the 81 percent passage rate or near that 81 percent. And some people, you know, seem to suggest that there was a low turnout, but it’s not. If you look at all the previous LOSTS that we’ve had, E-SPLOSTS that we had, this is probably the highest turnout that we’ve had in that issue. Not only that, more comforting is, we won a yes vote in every single precinct in Macon, which tells me that we have buy-in all across the community and not just a few communities that own a lot of property in Macon. So we’re very encouraged about that and we have some other things dealing with crime and that we’re going to be rolling out in the next few weeks. In particular, our strategic plan that we have for the MVP program. 2021 has been another one of those years that we’ll look back at. But crime has not substantially increased in Macon, despite what people may believe. We’re about where we were last year, which is not good, in 2020. But other areas continue to increase their crime and their homicides at an alarming rate. I think about my good friend Skip Henderson over in Columbus, where you know they have over 60 something murders there this year, and last year they had substantially less than that. So they’re continuing to grow in those areas, and I think they’re going to be playing catch up. Whereas Bibb County has remained about the same, but we know now based on the types of crimes we had this year, how better to address those. The strategic plan, when we put that in place and the funding that we’re finally doing through the Community Foundation, we’re confident in the next, you know, 12 to 24 months that we’re going to see that rate start to decrease and continue on the downhill slide because we’re tackling those root causes. So we know people are concerned about that in the community, but we feel like that we put together the team and the plan necessary to tackle this. And I think we’re going to see some, some dramatic decreases in the next, next 12 to 24 months, and we’re very excited about those possibilities.

Liz Fabian CCJ: [00:16:51] Since you brought up the OLOST, what is the timeline for that going forward? When do we see a property tax rollback? When when do we see the other facets of that?

Mayor Miller: [00:17:00] The, uh, we’ve done everything we’re supposed to do with the state. The election was certified. We’re been a part of communications with the Department of Revenue to send out all the letters about collection. And that’ll start around the first week in January. The plan has always been to follow the law. The law says you collect one year and you roll back the next year. So we appreciate the local delegation doing their part to get it on the ballot. We did our part on making sure people were educated and they passed it. We’ll look at our finances like we do every year at budget time, and if there’s a chance to give a roll back every year, we’ll do that. But the law is going to require a 100 percent rollback after the first year collections going into the second year. So, I think people will start to see a… at least after the full-year collection, they’ll, they’ll receive a 35 percent reduction. Must be, could be as much as 40 percent reduction in their property taxes in 2023 and 2024. But we can’t do ourself harm by trying to rush something and make mistakes just to please folks to give something back before we collect it. I think we’re just asking for trouble. We’re not sure where we’re at in the pandemic and what that’s going to mean going forward as far as recovery. Inflation is pretty high right now. So, we have to be very mindful of those things and do what we promised to do. And that is, after the first year collections then we’ll start the rollbacks in. Then in full implementation will be a seven to eight mill roll back permanently unless people decide to do that after the sunset, so we’re very excited about that. Other communities are raising their taxes and Bibb County’s decreasing our taxes. I think we can see a large economic impact on that.

Liz Fabian CCJ: [00:18:34] Thank you, Mr. Mayor, for joining us.

Mayor Miller: [00:18:36] Thank you.