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County, cities sign service delivery, LOST agreements

Officials from Clayton County and its seven cities gathered in Jonesboro Thursday for the final adoption and signing of the 10-year Local Option Sales Tax and Service Delivery Strategy agreements.

Officials from Clayton County and its seven cities gathered in Jonesboro Thursday for the final adoption and signing of the 10-year Local Option Sales Tax and Service Delivery Strategy agreements.

— Clayton County and its seven cities spent nearly four years of debating, litigating and then hashing out details of Local Option Sales Tax and Service Delivery Strategy agreements.

However, the long road to reaching an agreement came to an end Thursday with the county commission’s final adoption and signing of both agreements. The commission adopted both by 3-2 margins, with commissioners Sonna Singleton and Gail Hambrick voting against each agreement.

Afterwards, jubilant municipal leaders shook hands, smiled and posed for pictures with commission Chairman Jeff Turner, Vice-Chairman Michael Edmondson and Commissioner Shana Rooks.

“This was one of my priorities when I took office, and I appreciate that I had a great bunch of mayors to work with,” said Turner.

The new agreements will last 10 years and the cities will gain a greater portion of LOST proceeds. In the first year, the cities will receive 31.41 percent of LOST proceeds. In year two, the percentage goes up to 32.41 percent, and it will increase again to 33.41 percent in year three. It will remain at that percentage for the remainder of the agreement.

For some cities, the increase in LOST funds they will receive gives them the ability to move forward with new projects in their cities. Jonesboro, for example, will see its share of the pie increase by as much as 35 percent, said Mayor Joy Day.

“For a small city, that’s a great amount,” said Day.

But not everyone was happy with the new arrangement. As she voted against the LOST agreement, Singleton said she thought it would hurt residents in unincorporated areas of the county.

“I believe it will result in a tax increase for people in unincorporated areas of the county,” said Singleton without explaining how she thought that would happen.

Turner said the cost could have been worse if the county had not reached an agreement with the cities. He pointed to a lawsuit filed by Gwinnett County cities against their county commission a few years ago over failed service delivery negotiations. The cities won that fight and it cost Gwinnett County millions of dollars.

A similar situation would have been devastating for Clayton County’s finances and taxes would have likely gone up to pay for it, said Turner.

“We probably would have had to create special tax districts and the millage rate may have had to be raised in that case,” he said.

The mayors of Forest Park, Jonesboro, Lake City, Morrow and Riverdale have signed the agreements and they will be submitted to state officials for filing and go into effect immediately. Although there are seven cities in Clayton County, state law didn’t require signatures from all of them.

Only the county seat (Jonesboro), any city whose population exceeds 15,000 residents (Forest Park and Riverdale) and half of the remaining cities had to sign onto the agreements.

But everyone agreed the county benefited from more than having the agreements in place, although no one in the county could apply for new state grants without having the agreements in place. The real value of the process, officials on both sides said, was that the county and its cities learned to work more closely with each other.

“What I like about this is, more than coming together and reaching a resolution and a solution for service delivery and LOST, the fact that the county and the cities are now collaborating in a joint effort,” said Riverdale Mayor Evelyn Winn-Dixon. “We’ve become one for the betterment of not the cities, but the county.”

Morrow Mayor Joseph “J.B.” Burke said he hopes the bond built through the negotiating process will be sustained as new issues arise.

“I am not only satisfied with the collaborative efforts from each of my colleagues, I am confident that what we have built along the way are lasting relationships among the leaders in this county,” said Burke. “With a mutual respect and strong communication, these relationships will help build the best future for Clayton County.”

One of the stumbling blocks that held up negotiations for the agreements, according to cities, had been the county commission’s refusal to meet with city leaders to hash out a deal. Lake City Mayor Willie Oswalt said the elections of Turner and Rooks proved to be the breakthrough that kicked negotiations into high gear.

“When them two got here, that’s when it started to change for the best,” said Oswalt.

But the newfound spirit of cooperation will face new challenges as the county and its cities begin to look at other issues looming on the horizon. Chief among them will be negotiations on a new Special Purpose Local Option Sales Tax scheduled to go before voters next year.

“We have a SPLOST renewal coming up next year and we need to sit down and hammer out a list of projects to put forward to the voters,” said Turner.