Photo by Curt Yeomans
Clayton County commission Chairman Eldrin Bell reacts to a comment at a commission meeting in this file photo. Bell said Wednesday he is hopeful upcoming arbitration will resolve an ongoing service delivery and sales tax fight between the county and its seven cities.
JONESBORO — Clayton County and its seven cities are heading into arbitration after attempts to sit down and hammer out new sales tax and service delivery agreements failed this summer, according to authorities.
Atlanta-based attorney O.V. Brantley and retired Piedmont Judicial Circuit Superior Court Judge Robert Adamson have been hired by both sides to resolve Local Option Sales Tax and service delivery agreement issues between the county and its cities.
The issue has dragged on for months as leaders of the cities have vowed to negotiate the two agreements together while they claimed county officials would not meet with them.
Now that mediators will be involved, both sides are optimistic new agreements can be reached within a matter of months.
“I am hopeful that, at this juncture, we can make some breakthrough that will get this issue resolved in the best interest of the people of Clayton County,” said county commission Chairman Eldrin Bell.
“We need to go ahead and get this thing hashed out before the end of the year,” said Lake City Mayor Willie Oswalt, a de facto spokesperson for the cities in LOST and service delivery negotiations.
Arbitration on the agreements is set to begin Sept. 17, when the two sides will sit down at the negotiating table for the first time in over a month, according to Oswalt. The county and the cities have agreed to share the responsibility of paying for Brantley and Adamson’s assistance.
Clayton News Daily learned about the hiring of Brantley and Adamson at the Aug. 28 Morrow City Council work session. During the meeting, Morrow City Manager Jeff Eady said Brantley’s work will focus on LOST and Adamson will deal with the service delivery agreement.
There is a real impetus to get agreements hammered out quickly. The previous service delivery agreement expired nearly a year ago, and the current LOST agreement expires in December. The cities and the county tried to sit down for a series of negotiating meetings in late July and early August, but talks broke off after two meetings.
Because negotiations on the two agreements are tied to each other, Oswalt said the cities and the county will have to simultaneously reach agreements on both issues. The main sticking point is the size of the cities’ share of lost proceeds. They currently get approximately 26 percent but they want somewhere in the neighborhood of 30 percent.
“We do need to sit down,” said Oswalt. “We think we have substantial numbers that support our case.”
Without a service delivery agreement in place, the county and the cities can’t receive new grants unless they were applied for before the old service delivery agreement expired last October.
They also can’t renew state-issued permits, such as the permit that allows law enforcement agencies to use radar guns in issuing speeding tickets.
Police departments in Forest Park, Jonesboro, Lake City, Morrow and Riverdale will lose their ability to use speed-detection devices on Dec. 31, if a new service delivery agreement is not reached before then. Police in Lovejoy can’t even get a permit because of the ongoing stalemate. The permits for county police and the College Park Police Department don’t expire until the end of 2013.
Given the stakes in this fight, Oswalt concedes some compromise may have to take place so the stalemate can end and cities can become eligible to receive grants and permits again.
“There’s going to have to be some give and take from both sides,” said Oswalt.
Bell hasn’t ruled out the possibility that at least part of the fight will roll over to 2013, when it becomes the responsibility of commission Chairman-elect Jeff Turner to steer the county through any lingering negotiations. Turner has pledged to sit down and work with the cities after he takes office.
“I’m hopeful we will find a solution to the LOST issue before the end of the year and certainly into early 2013 on the service delivery issue,” said Bell.