Leesburg City Council accepts sales tax offer

LEESBURG, Ga. -- A divided Leesburg City Council voted 3-2 Monday night to accept an offer that gives it 13 percent of the county's Local Option Sales Tax revenue for the next decade.

Lee County commissioners have voted to take 81 percent of the Local Option Sales Tax funds while giving Leesburg 13 percent and Smithville 6 percent in a 10-year agreement.

Facing a deadline of Sept. 12, Leesburg Council members discussed the county's offer during their regular monthly session.

Councilwoman Judy Powell was not content with the 13 percent share for Leesburg considering the impact it will have on the city's budget. Leesburg has received 17.5 percent of the sales tax funds for the past decade.

"I would like to get one more percent," Powell said. She favored the county keeping 81 percent, with the extra funds for Leesburg coming from Smithville's share.

Lee County Attorney Bert Gregory explained that the council had options. If they rejected the 13 percent allocation, council members would first go to mediation. If both sides were fixed with the existing offer, Gregory said, the matter would be heard by a superior court judge from outside the local circuit.

That judge is supposed to rule using "baseball arbitration," where he considers both sides and picks one of the proposals and not a negotiated figure.

However, Gregory said, Paulding County is the only county in Georgia to reach that stage so far, and the judge did not follow the guidelines.

"The judge was not supposed to split the baby (by approving a negotiated total), but he did," Gregory said.

Gregory acknowledged that council members were facing a tough decision. He said it would not be out of the question that Lee County would come back with a figure based totally on population -- a percentage of between 10 and 11 percent.

"You can try to read the tea leaves," he said. "A motion was made (at the previous Lee County Commission meeting) and not seconded (to increase Leeburg's share), and a second motion was made and not seconded. It does not sound like other members of the County Commission were in favor of more than 13 percent."

At that point, Councilman Sidney Johnson made a motion to reluctantly accept the 13 percent share offered by the county. Councilman Richard Bush seconded the motion.

During the vote, Councilman Billy Breeden joined Johnson and Bush, while Powell and Mayor Pro Tem Debra Long opposed the motion.

Mayor Jim Quinn called a meeting for 5:15 p.m. Monday to begin budget discussions on how to deal with the lower percentage.

Leesburg's budget, which goes through June 30, was based on receiving 17.5 percent of the sales tax money. The reduced sales tax share, however, starts Jan. 1.

City department heads are being asked to come up with possible budget cuts totaling 5 percent by the Monday meeting.

"We don't want to raise taxes," said Long.