Concerned about Macon-Bibb’s budget? Here’s how to get your voice heard

Liz Fabian

COVID-19 forced Macon-Bibb County to hold a virtual public hearing on the Fiscal ’21 budget which will require people to email questions and concerns to [email protected].

COVID-19 pandemic guidelines mean Macon-Bibb County citizens will not be allowed to physically appear before commissioners at Tuesday’s Fiscal Year ‘21 budget hearing.

Mayor Robert Reichert and the commission again will meet virtually on a Zoom teleconference to limit the number of people present at Government Center to reduce the threat of spreading the deadly coronavirus.

The public is still invited to comment on the proposed $159.6 million budget that dips $10 million from the fund balance and includes employee furloughs for most county workers, except sworn public safety personnel.

Written questions and comments must be emailed to [email protected] by noon Tuesday.

Senior Assistant County Attorney Michael McNeill will be aggregating comments that cover the same issues and announcing the names of all who raised those concerns.

“If you have two or three people making those same points… we won’t have to read them all,” McNeill told commissioners during Friday’s Operations and Finance Committee meeting.

Committee chairman Virgil Watkins Jr. proposed a few changes to the spending plan based on new sales tax numbers from April.

When putting together the budget, which must be a balanced according to the consolidated government charter, the county estimated sales tax revenue would be down $900,000 a month, or 33 percent. April’s numbers show an actual sales tax drop of less than half that, or about $420,000.

The committee voted to adjust the budget to factor in a 32 percent drop in sales tax, which would amount to an increase in the sales tax line item of $4,768,000 and a reduction in money allocated from the fund balance..

Members also agreed to alter the proposed furlough for most employees that is slated to begin July 1 in the mayor’s budget.

Reichert proposed furloughing all county workers, except certain public safety personnel, a half-day per week, or one full day per pay period.

Watkins proposed pushing the mandated employee furloughs to January, the second half of the budget year, to account for the potential for sales tax revenue to be much better than projected.

If projected revenue does not increase, workers could lose one day per week or two days per pay period for those six months, instead of one day per paycheck for the whole year.

“I like the second half because I think we’re going to rebound,” Commissioner Elaine Lucas said. “I think there’s going to be some improvement in some areas.”

County Manager Keith Moffett reiterated that postponing the furloughs could double the reduction in hours for the first six months of 2021.

“If the crisis comes back in January, we’ll be looking at two days per pay period,” Moffett said.

“It might not be necessary,” Lucas said. “That’s what I’m hopeful for.”

Watkins also wants the county to revisit the proposed summer furlough for recreation department employees.

The mayor proposed furloughing staff four days each week in June, July and August while county recreation centers are closed due to the virus. Working one day a week would allow them to continue paying for health insurance while taking advantage of some enhanced unemployment benefits.

Watkins floated the idea of allowing the recreation employees to voluntarily furlough.

“There are some employees who are truly scared and want to go home,” Watkins said. “Also, some that the kids they serve are their everything.”

Watkins wants to keep some rec center workers on the job to come up with alterative programs for youth as the county’s homicide total for the first five months of the year has surpassed the number of victims for all of 2019.

McNeill pointed out that unemployment benefits might not kick in if workers have an option to stay on the job.

The county’s human resources department will review the matter and advise the committee next week about what is possible.

The county attorney’s office also was involved in planning Tuesday’s public hearing to make sure citizens can still participate and have input on how tax dollars are spent.

Watkins said they initially considered opening up the Zoom conference call to the public, but thought that would be problematic since it’s taken a while for even the elected officials to figure out the nuances of teleconferencing and muting telephones to reduce background noise.

Adding just 20 others to the call would be risky, he said.

“Could become quite hectic,” Watkins said. “One person in there with ill intent can be quite distracting.”

The commission is scheduled to vote on the budget June 9, the day many of them are up for re-election.

Contact Civic Reporting Senior Fellow Liz Fabian at 478-301-2976 or [email protected].