The Clayton County Board of Commissioners unanimously approved an agreement to deliver county services to the seven cities located in the county, but the mayors of some of those cities indicated, afterward, that they may not agree to that proposal.
The service-delivery agreement establishes the ground rules for how the county provides support measures, such as fire and police protection, emergency medical services, and animal control services to the cities. In addition to county approval, state law mandates that the mayors of five of Clayton County’s seven cities have to vote in favor of accepting the agreement, during a meeting of the Clayton County Municipal Association.
Without the agreement, neither the county, nor the cities of College Park, Forest Park, Jonesboro, Lake City, Lovejoy, Morrow and Riverdale would be eligible to receive any grant funding from the state, according to several mayors and county officials.
But, lingering disagreements, largely related to Local Option Sales Tax (LOST) negotiations, could lead to the mayors rejecting the agreement when they meet on Friday, according to Lake City Mayor Willie Oswalt. “We won’t go on record as signing service deliveries without dealing with [the] Local Option Sales Tax,” Oswalt said.
Interim County Attorney Jack Hancock said the existing service-delivery agreement was initiated in 2006, and expires on Oct. 30, creating a sense of urgency to get an agreement in place soon. He told commissioners that the proposed, new agreement would last through Dec. 31, 2012, which is when the LOST expires.
Hancock told commissioners that aligning the expiration dates of the service-delivery agreement and LOST would allow the county and the cities to simultaneously negotiate new agreements for both. The precise details of what the lengthy agreement entails were not immediately available, following the commission’s meeting. Some city leaders, such as Jonesboro Mayor Luther Maddox and Riverdale Mayor Evelyn Wynn-Dixon, said they have not even seen a copy of the agreement that commissioners approved.
“They [county leaders] are going to do whatever they want to do,” Wynn-Dixon said. Maddox and Oswalt said they have been trying for two years to negotiate a deal on the service-delivery agreement, and the LOST. Several mayors complained that county officials, notably the county commissioners, have not sat down with city officials to hammer out an agreement on the LOST issues.
“The county is not negotiating with us,” Maddox said. “They want to tell us what they’re going to do. That’s not negotiating.” Oswalt added: “The commissioners will not meet with us. Since [County Manager Wade Starr] came on board, he’s been going around, and he’s talked to three municipalities –– that ain’t gonna work.”
Clayton County Commission Chairman Eldrin Bell said, in response to Oswalt’s assertions that the mayors and commissioners have to sit down to discuss LOST, that everyone involved in the discussions should think about the county’s residents. “I think we will be able to come to an agreement, which they will find satisfactory, if we keep in mind the duties that we owe to the people of Clayton County, and not any particular individual,” Bell said.
The Lake City mayor said the disagreements between the county and the cities should not lead to disruptions in police or fire protections. He pointed out that each city has its own police department. He added that many of them also have their own fire and emergency services departments, contract with other cities to obtain fire services, or have contracts with the county that are separate from the service-delivery agreement.
The biggest consequence of not getting the approval of the mayors, several officials said, would be the loss of grant funding sources. “If it is not approved by the end of the month, then the citizens of this county will suffer the loss of their services, through grants,” Bell said.
Wynn-Dixon said, as an example, that Riverdale “will lose CDBG [Community Development Block Grant] funding” if a new agreement is not in place by the end of the month. But, she echoed Bell’s sentiments that the affects of not being able to reach agreement would be widespread, even extending beyond city limits. “It’s going to affect the entire county,” she said.
A key issue is how much money the cities get from LOST collections, according to Oswalt. He said the county and the cities split the amount of money raised through the tax. He explained that 29 percent of the money goes to the cities, who have to split that money among themselves. He said the cities want a bigger share.
“We want what we think is our fair share, which is four, to five percent [more than the cities presently get from LOST],” Oswalt said.
Despite the gulf that exists between city and county leaders on the LOST issues, Oswalt, Wynn-Dixon and Bell said it was still possible that the mayors could agree to accept the proposed service-delivery agreement.
“I hope after they have had an opportunity to look at it, and examine it, that they will support this portion of the resolution going forward,” Bell said. “The date on the resolution, being December , will give them ample opportunity to discuss both [the service-delivery agreement and LOST], and provide the same reaction if they are still dissatisfied with it.”
Dixon would only say “we’ll make a decision on Friday.” Oswalt also would not close the door on the possibility of the agreement being accepted, but he added that serious negotiations will be necessary. “We will sit, and hash this thing out ‘till we get to a mutual agreement,” Oswalt said.