Clayton County residents are not really any closer to seeing a break-through in service-delivery-strategy talks between the county and its cities than they were three-and-a-half months ago, when the previous delivery agreement expired, according to officials from various cities.
Several city officials have said the problem is that the Clayton County Commission has not agreed to meet, as a group, with representatives of the cities in talks over the distribution of services and Local Option Sales Tax (LOST) funds.
The cities want a bigger share of the LOST money pie, but city officials say they have had trouble getting county officials to agree to that suggestion.
The cities have vowed to stick together until each is satisfied with an agreement on service-delivery strategies and LOST funding, which are technically separate issues. How soon that gets done, however, will depend on getting city and county leaders to sit down with each other.
“There ain’t no talks,” said Lake City Mayor Willie Oswalt. “That’s the bad part about it, is they ain’t talking ... We’ve tried to [set up meetings with the commission], but they won’t meet as a group. [County Manager] Wade Starr will meet with you, and they’ll just meet with you one at a time, but that’s not going to get it done.”
There is a lot at stake, if a new agreement is not reached soon. The county, and its cities, face the prospect of being ineligible for grants, and the renewal of state permits — such as those needed for county and city police departments to use radar-detection devices.
The previous agreement expired on Oct. 31, 2011, and both sides are now tussling to be the side that convinces residents they are doing all they can to get a new agreement in place. “What we want to do is sit down, and find out what the cities want to do, and delineate those issues that they put on the table,” Clayton County Commission Chairman Eldrin Bell said, recently. “We can’t just walk in a room, and ask for more money. We’ve got to show the differences between the services, and the money, before we can make critical decisions.
“From my perspective, and from the perspective of the board, all we want is what is fair for the county, and fair for the cities,” the commission chairman added.
Oswalt said city officials are willing to talk with Starr about service-delivery strategies, but, ultimately, they want to deal with “somebody that can make a decision,” and not a county manager who can only make a recommendation to commissioners. That is why, he said, city leaders want to meet with the entire county commission.
“They’ll damn the cities, but it ain’t the cities’ fault,” said Oswalt. “We’re ready to talk. We’ve been ready to talk.”
The cities have taken some steps to strengthen their position in any service-delivery talks. They hired former Savannah City Manager, Michael Brown, in November, at a cost of approximately $19,000, to serve as a consultant to the cities, during negotiations with the county.
Brown was brought in because he has experience dealing with service-delivery and LOST issues in Georgia, city officials said. “He’s supposed to be getting data for the cities, regarding, I guess, what you could call our fair share of the sales tax ... and the overlap of services,” said Jonesboro Mayor Joy Day.
Brown, she said, should have a report ready for the cities “in the next two, to three weeks.”
Morrow City Manager Jeff Eady told Morrow’s councilmembers, on Jan. 24, that paperwork put forth by the county, pertaining to services it provides for the cities, has been incorrect, causing additional complications in efforts to reach an agreement. “Just a simple example was [a statement that] ‘Clayton County performs all economic development for the City of Morrow,’” Eady said. “We made sure they understood that was not correct [Morrow has its own economic development department], and we got it corrected.”
As the months have dragged on without movement toward an agreement, however, several city officials have been unafraid of dropping the “A” word — arbitration — when asked about negotiations. “We’re pretty sure this may go to arbitration, and it’s probably going to go to a judge,” Eady said.
Day said a protracted effort to reach an agreement could take the county and the cities from negotiations, to mediation, to the county’s Superior Court, and possibly, to the state’s appeals courts. Gwinnett County recently went through that process in its service-delivery battle with its cities, and that fight took two years to reach a conclusion.
“It could be a long, drawn-out process, [and] it has great repercussions if we don’t get this worked out,” Day said.