County finally negotiating service delivery

JONESBORO — After months of criticizing the Clayton County Board of Commissioners for not sitting down to negotiate the ongoing service delivery strategy stalemate, leaders of the county’s seven cities appear to have gotten their wish.

Lake City Mayor Willie Oswalt said the leaders of the county’s cities have been promised a meeting with the Commission next week, in hopes of resolving the impasse.

“It’s supposed to be the whole crowd,” Oswalt said. “At least that’s what we’ve been told.”

Mayors and city managers of the county’s cities have agreed to stick together in all-or-none fashion. They have also tied the service delivery agreement to Local Option Sales Tax negotiations.

The meeting will take place July 24, at 10 a.m., at the Clayton County Board of Commissioners Building, located at 112 Smith St., in Jonesboro. Oswalt said the negotiations are supposed to take place in public, but he doesn’t expect to see much progress made at the meeting.

“I think this first meeting will be like a boxing match,” Oswalt said. “The first round, or two, will mostly be both sides trying to feel the other out. I don’t think we’ll see much movement right away.”

There is a real impetus to get a new service delivery agreement in place before the end of the year because that is when speed-detection device permits, which allow county and city police departments to use radar and laser guns to issue tickets to speeders, will begin to expire. Speeding tickets would be on shakier ground in court, and those tickets are an important source of revenue for cities.

The county and its cities also can’t renew any state permits, or apply for new state grants, without an agreement in place. Many of those permits also expire this year.

Angie Holt, director of the Georgia Department of Public Safety’s special investigation’s division, said the speed-detection device permits for the police departments of Forest Park, Jonesboro, Lake City, Morrow and Riverdale will expire on Dec. 31. The permits for the Clayton County Police Department and the College Park Police Department will expire at the end of 2013, she said.

“Lovejoy Police Department does not have a permit,” said Holt. “They applied for a permit, but because they are on [the state’s] non-compliant list because of this issue, their application was turned down and sent back to them.”

She also said because College Park is partially in Fulton County and partially in Clayton County, the city would only lose the ability to run speed detection devices on the Clayton side of the city.

Even though the stakes are high in these negotiations, Oswalt said he is bracing himself for the chance that the cities will not get their wish to meet with the full Commission. He said city leaders could still find themselves negotiating with just Commission Chairman Eldrin Bell, County Manager Wade Starr and interim County Attorney Jack Hancock.

Bell said he has asked his fellow commissioners to attend the meeting, but he could not guarantee they will show up. Any deal resulting from the meeting would still have to be ratified by the full commission and the respective city councils. Still, he said, the fact that a meeting is taking place is a significant step toward resolving the service delivery issue.

“I’m very encouraged,” said Bell. “The public is genuinely concerned about this. It is time for us to resolve these matters and move forward with the vision and plans that we have for the county.”

City leaders have previously said their reasons for wanting to negotiate LOST and service delivery is that they want a slightly bigger portion of the tax’s pie and they feel there are some duplication of services between cities and the county that need to be eliminated.

One example of this is police protection. Each city has its own police department but residents of these municipalities also are being made to pay for county police protection.

The decision to sit down at the negotiating table comes after months after the previous agreement expired last October. Leaders of several cities said then that they rejected the county’s proposed agreement because they had no say-so in its development.

State law requires signatures from the leaders the county seat, any city with a population of more than 15,000 and 50 percent of the remaining cities for an agreement to be in place. That means Jonesboro, Riverdale and Forest Park must sign the agreement, plus two of these remaining four cities — College Park, Lake City, Lovejoy and Morrow.

However, that has proven to be difficult to get because of cities’ pact to stick together in the negotiations.

Some of the recent developments in the fight include:

• The cities hired former Savannah City Manager Michael Brown in February to serve as their consultant in negotiations.

• Jonesboro officials accused county leaders in April of unexpectedly dumping Lee Street Park in their lap and stripping it of many of its amenities in retaliation for city leaders refusing to sign the county’s proposed agreement.

• The cities individually approved an agreement to hire Jonesboro attorney Steve Fincher to represent them in possible litigation against the county over the stalled service delivery negotiations. Fincher is the city attorney for Jonesboro, Lake City and Lovejoy.

• Oswalt accused county leaders of refusing to fill potholes on Forest Parkway, a county road, in retaliation for Lake City not agreeing to sign the proposed service delivery agreement.