Clayton service delivery fight jeopardizes police radar use

County, cities say negotiations are sluggish

Local police departments may find themselves unable to use radar guns to identify speeders on Clayton County roads, if the county and its seven cities do not reach an agreement, soon, on the county's service delivery strategy.

The previous service delivery agreement between Clayton County, and the cities of College Park, Forest Park, Jonesboro, Lake City, Lovejoy, Morrow and Riverdale, expired on Oct. 31. Under state law, the county and the cities are not eligible to receive state grants, or permits, without an agreement in place.

One activity that requires a state-issued permit is radar detector use by police departments. Thus, municipalities and the county may lose their ability to use the speed-detection devices.

"Everybody but the state patrol is affected by that [lack of an agreement]," said Interim County Attorney Jack Hancock, following a county commission meeting earlier this week.

It remains to be seen when radar usage will have to stop, but it is likely it will happen at some point, if the county and cities get into a prolonged fight over a service delivery agreement.

For now, the county and city law enforcement departments can continue to use their radar devices, said Georgia Department of Public Safety Spokesman Gordy Wright. That department is the agency that issues radar-usage permits.

"They can continue to run radar and laser until their permit expires," Wright wrote in an e-mailed statement. He said the expiration dates for each law enforcement department's current radar permits were not immediately available on Friday.

Wright added, however, "as long as the agencies are on the list of ineligible [counties and cities without service delivery agreements in place], we will not be able to renew, or issue any new speed detection device permits ... until they are removed from the list of ineligible."

County Manager Wade Starr said law enforcement would have to use less sophisticated means of determining whether a driver is speeding, if the radar permits expire. More than likely that would mean police would have to try to use a practice known as "pacing." They would try and match how fast a person is driving.

"You still can pace people," Starr said. "That [not having radar] doesn't stop from you from being able to give tickets, it just means you can't use radar."

Lake City Mayor Willie Oswalt, Jonesboro Mayor Luther Maddox, and Forest Park City Manager John Parker, said their cities have not yet received notification to stop using radar devices.

Riverdale City Manager Iris Jessie has warned that her city's police department may soon lose the ability to run radar, according to city council meeting minutes.

The service delivery agreement battle is part of a larger fight between the county and its cities over the distribution of Local Option Sales Tax (LOST) funds. Officials on both sides readily made it seem like the other side was at blame for a lack of a new agreement.

Starr said the cities make up 20 percent of the county's population, and 20 percent of its tax digest. He said, however, they receive a total of 25 percent of the funds raised through the LOST. LOST expires at the end of 2012, and the municipalities have expressed interest in negotiating the LOST and service delivery agreements at the same time.

City officials have said they feel they deserve a slightly larger slice of the LOST pie.

The county manager said an interim extension of the last service delivery strategy, designed to last until the current LOST expires, was offered to the cities by the county commission, but the cities turned it down.

Technically, state law mandates that the service delivery strategy agreement only has to be approved by the county seat (Jonesboro), any city whose population exceeds 9,000 residents (Riverdale and Forest Park), and 50 percent of the remaining cities. In Clayton County's case, that means two cities, out of a group that includes College Park, Lake City, Lovejoy and Morrow.

Officials from the cities, however, have made a pact that they will stick together in the negotiations. If one city wants to hold out, then all of the other cities are expected to hold out as well.

"We're hopeful that, after the first of the year, the cities will reconsider their position, and sign an interim service delivery agreement, so that we can accomplish what they said that they want to accomplish all along," Starr said. "We can either negotiate while we deal with the consequences of an expired SDS, or we can negotiate without suffering that. "The cities have chosen to allow the imposition of consequences."

Oswalt, Parker and Maddox said the county has not been willing to sit down with the cities and negotiate new service delivery strategy and LOST agreements, however.

"We've been trying to meet with the county for two years, and they weren't interested in meeting with us," Oswalt said. "Now, they've found themselves in a situation where we don't have an agreement in place, and now they want to sit down and talk with us."

Parker said one issue of contention in the LOST negotiations is residents in the cities are paying for county services not used in their cities, such as county police protection. "People that live in the cities pay for all of the services that are available for the benefit of the people who live in unincorporated parts of the county," he said.

Oswalt said another key item that could be affected by the lack of a service delivery strategy agreement is construction permits from the Georgia Department of Transportation. A spokesperson from the Georgia Department of Community Affairs, which oversees service delivery agreement issues, could not be reached on Friday, to confirm Oswalt's statement, though.

If an agreement cannot be reached soon, a mediator from outside the county will likely have to be brought in, to oversee arbitration between county and city officials, according to officials from multiple cities. Parker said the issue would have to move on to the court system, if mediation fails.

Clayton County is not the only Georgia county which does not have an agreement in place with its cities at this time. Gwinnett County, and Washington County, do not have agreements, according to the Georgia Department of Community Affairs web site.

Gwinnett County, which has been without an agreement with its cities for two, or more, years. It has already gone through mediation, and the two sides have moved to the point where they are fighting in the courts over a possible agreement, according to published reports from the Gwinnett Daily Post, a sister publication of the Clayton News Daily and Henry Daily Herald.