LEESBURG, Ga. -- It was two giant steps back for Lee County, Leesburg and Smithville officials Monday night as representatives of all three county governments sought an equitable division of the county's local-option sales tax money.
Smithville officials offered a scenario of financial ruin in the wake of suggestions that the municipality's share of the 1 percent tax funds be cut from its current 11.56 percent to around 3 or 4 percent, while Leesburg's mayor suggested that the county seat should receive an amount at least commensurate with smaller Smithville's.
The second called meeting of the government officials ended with Smithville and Leesburg officials agreeing that they could live with cuts to 15 percent (from 17.5) for Leesburg and 8 percent for Smithville, only to have County Commissioner Rick Muggridge say that split was not fair to citizens in the unincorporated portion of the county.
"What I think we need to remember is that there are inequities in all forms of taxes," County Commissioner Dennis Roland, who represents portions of Smithville and Leesburg, said. "The question I think we most need to answer is do we want Smithville to become a ghost town. I personally think it would cost the county more to run (Smithville) than whatever amount of money we give them now.
"Looking at their budget, they couldn't even pay their police department with the money that would be left if we cut their LOST funds (to 3 percent)."
Muggridge provided a handout showing the per-capita payment, based on 2010 census data, for each entity under the current 70.94/17.5/11.56 split, noting that county residents receive $89.37 each of the $2,529,080 collected under the plan, Leesburg residents $300.97 each and Smithville residents $815.29.
"I think you can see why we believe the current (LOST distribution formula) is not fair," Muggridge said.
Smithville City Councilman Dwight Hickman railed at the Lee County Commission, accusing county officials of, among other things, "treating the people of Smithville like they don't even exist" and "discriminating against a largely minority population."
Hickman is white.
"This is nothing but politics," the Smithville councilman said. "You talk about giving us 1.3 percent like we're nothing. That's a slap in the face. If you're just going to give us what you're going to give us, there was no need to even hold these meetings.
"And the sad thing is we can't do anything about it."
Leesburg Mayor Jim Quinn reacted to Hickman's statement.
"Yes, we can do something about it," Quinn said. "We can go to arbitration. But I don't know what good that would do us if (a judge) bases his decision on population and tax digest. We have no tax digest because the property in our city limits -- like that $14 million school we're building -- is taken off the digest."
Smithville Mayor Jerry Myrick accused Muggridge of "talking out of the side of your mouth" during the discussions.
Muggridge quickly responded.
"I resent your saying that," the county commissioner said. "By saying I'm talking out of the side of my mouth, you're implying I'm lying. I'd like for you to point out where I've lied."
Leesburg City Councilman Bob Wilson asked for more decorum during the discussions.
"We're not going to solve anything by accusing one another," he said. "That doesn't accomplish anything. I would hope we would work together to solve this."
Smithville Councilman Vincent Cutts offered a dire prognosis for Smithville if its LOST funding is cut significantly.
"That money is how we pay our bills," he said. "If we don't get it, we're going to have to make drastic cuts, no ifs, ands or buts about it. You keep mentioning population, and if that's your (primary criteria), we're already dead.
"The $35,000 a month we've been getting from LOST is vital to us. There's no way we can survive without it. If you take that away, you might as well bury Smithville."
The group agreed to meet again next week for a third bargaining session.