LOST talks break down

Mayors say county walked out on mediation

— Clayton County has broken off talks with its seven cities on a sales tax fight that could derail service delivery negotiations, according to city leaders.

Interim County Attorney Jack Hancock told the attorney for the cities, Steve Fincher, that the county was no longer going to participate in the LOST mediation Tuesday, said Jonesboro Mayor Joy Day. She said the mediation began last week and the two sides only met once before the county quit participating in the talks.

The current LOST agreement expires at the end of the year.

“Jack Hancock told Steve we were just too far apart to reach an agreement,” said Day. “So, the next step, I guess, is to let the courts sort this out. Steve is sending a letter to the county telling them we need confirmation that this is what they want.”

The county and cities now find themselves at a crossroads about the future of LOST and, by extension, the service delivery agreement negotiations between the two sides. The cities decided last year to tie the two issues together and the last service delivery agreement expired nearly a year ago.

Without a service delivery agreement in place, the county and the cities cannot apply for, and receive, new grant funding. Police departments also can’t renew their state-issued speed detection device permits. Many city police departments will see their permits expire at the end of this year.

After the county walked out on LOST mediation, it put only one offer on the table — renew the current LOST agreement without any changes, said Burke. The cities view that offer as unacceptable, he said. The cities’ long-held position has been that they feel they deserve a larger share of the LOST funding pie.

“We went into this with a good-faith effort to reach an agreement, but the county has been resisting us from the beginning,” said Burke. “They didn’t try to work with us ... Honestly, I feel the county has done nothing but insult the citizens of the cities and the unincorporated parts of the county.”

College Park Mayor Jack Longino said the cities will continue their efforts to negotiation “in good faith” with the county, despite its decision to walk out on mediation, but he did not rule out the possibility of a judge having to sort the issue out.

Gwinnett County ended up in a two-year legal battle with its cities over a service delivery issue, and it was ordered earlier this year to pay millions of dollars to the cities.

“If we end up in court, then we end up in court,” said Longino, who is also the president of the Clayton County Municipal Association.

Morrow Mayor Joseph “J.B.” Burke the LOST mediator, Atlanta-based attorney O.V. Brantley, is trying to convince the county to come back to the mediating table, however.

The county’s decision to break off LOST mediation is just the latest sign of the sluggish nature of the negotiations, however. City leaders have complained since last year that county commissioners would not meet with them to work out new LOST and service delivery strategy agreements.

Day and Burke said no county commissioners or officials, besides Hancock and the county’s LOST consultant, attended the initial mediation session last week either.

“It’s very disheartening,” said Day. “I’m just at a loss for words over that.”

With the county walking out on LOST mediation, however, it raises questions about whether it will sit down for service delivery mediation.

“Given their past displays of arrogance, I have no idea about what’s going to happen next with the service delivery issue,” said Burke.

Hancock and county commission Chairman Eldrin Bell did not return phone calls Thursday.