LEESBURG, Ga. -- What Leesburg City Councilman Bob Wilson said in jest as he shook hands with Lee County Commission Chairman Ed Duffy before Monday's local-option sales tax negotiations could, in retrospect, be looked on almost as prophetic.
"We'd better shake hands now; we may not be talking to each other for a long time after tonight," Wilson said with a laugh.
And while Duffy assured Wilson that county representatives came to the meeting in a "spirit of cooperation," County Commissioner Rick Muggridge was left to lament after the hourlong session the "bruised feelings" that existed among representatives of the Lee, Leesburg and Smithville governments.
Smithville Mayor Jerry Myrick and City Councilman James Champion left as soon as the meeting ended, moments after Myrick had complained, "There's no reason in us even being here." Wilson and his fellow Leesburg officials -- Mayor Jim Quinn and Councilwoman Judy Powell -- stood firm on their defiant claim they would not take less than a 13 percent share of the 1 percent sales tax funds.
Muggridge, noting the Leesburg and Smithville officials' displeasure with the 12 and 6 percent shares offered by County Commissioner Bill Williams, called the meeting to an end by saying, "I don't think anyone on this board is ready to go where you want to go on this matter tonight, so this meeting is adjourned."
Muggridge did say after the meeting, however, that progress was made.
"We're not halfway through the (state-imposed) 60-day negotiating period and, regardless what people on the outside looking in might say, I'm very optimistic," he said. "This week, the two municipalities are talking about wanting 7 and 13 percent, and last week they were talking about 10 and 14 percent. We came up from 10 and 3 percent to 12 and 6 percent, so we're a lot closer than we have been.
"There do appear to be some bruised feelings, and I hate that, but this is not personal. We're talking about the people's money, and the people of this county deserve an equitable split of these funds."
The three entities had been using an 11.56 (Smithville), 17.5 (Leesburg) 70.94 (county) split to divide the funds, but county officials said they needed a larger percentage of the funding to help balance their budget. Leesburg and Smithville officials say taking too large a cut from their shares would leave them with their own budget crises.
Each LOST percentage point is equal to about $35,000, according to Lee Finance Director Heather Kittrell.
"If Leesburg gets 13 percent and we get 7 percent, the county is still getting most of the money, 80 percent of the money," Myrick said.
When Muggridge replied, "We hear you," Smithville Councilman Dwight Hickman said, "No, you don't hear us. Y'all keep saying that you're here to negotiate, but you're not. You're not willing to listen to what we're saying."
Wilson said citizens he's talked to in the county do not see the negotiations as fair.
"We're trying to be fair, but we'd like you all to be fair, too," he said. "The folks I've talked to in the county say it looks like Lee County is on a money-grabbing thing, not treating Leesburg fairly.
"I'd like us to settle this tonight. The longer we argue about this, the longer the perception is out there in the community that we can't get along. I'd hate for tomorrow's headline to be 'Lee, Leesburg, Smithville officials can't agree.'"
Muggridge replied, "I'm more concerned with an equitable split of the people's money than I am what's written in the newspaper."
Quinn irked Smithville's contingent when he noted that since Leesburg has more than 50 percent of the county's municipal population, state law allows an agreement between the county and Leesburg to stand as a binding agreement. He also took Williams to task for saying he was "sympathetic to Smithville" when coming up with the 12-6 split.
"So, what you're saying is that you haven't used the eight criteria required by the state," Quinn said. "I have a problem with the fact we've been talking about numbers the whole time we've been doing this, and now when we get down to it, you're being nice to Smithville."
The representatives left without setting a time or date for a fourth meeting.