ALBANY, Ga. — Mediators with the University of Georgia-based Carl Vinson Institute of Government and the Fanning Institute and officials with the Albany and Dougherty County governments were tight-lipped about any progress made during the roughly six-hour closed mediation session held Monday to discuss division of local-option sales tax that will be collected countywide for the next decade.
At stake are hundreds of thousands of tax dollars that both governments say they need to balance their respective budgets. The city/county split of LOST funds has been 60/40 for the past 20 years. Each percentage point of the 1 percent sales tax represents roughly $175,000 in tax money.
"Everyone worked hard, and a lot of ground was covered," mediator David Hooker with the Fanning Institute said. "We weren't able to get everything done in one day, so the process will continue. I expect we'll be back here at a time that's convenient (to both governments' representatives)."
Neither City Manager James Taylor nor County Administrator Richard Crowdis offered much of an assessment of the progress made during the session.
"No agreement came from the discussions," Crowdis said. "As you know, we are in the second phase of this process, which will continue through October. We'll update our commission on today's (meeting) and move to the next step. This is a process, and we'll continue to work through the process."
Taylor offered a similar assessment.
"We talked," he said after the meeting. "This is a continuing process, and we'll let this take us to wherever we go next in the process."
It didn't take long for the gulf between the city and county commissions to surface Monday morning as representatives of both groups gathered to discuss division of the LOST funds.
Fanning Institute mediator Hooker directed media representatives to leave the meeting after Taylor informed him the session would be closed to the public. But County Commissioner Gloria Gaines took exception.
"I have a procedural question to ask," Gaines said. "Why does this become a closed session because one person said it was? I would assume that one person saying this is a closed session doesn't make it so."
County Attorney Spencer Lee said he agreed that the session should — and could legally — be closed, setting the tone for what was expected to be a contentious session.
Anna Boling and Betty Hudson from the Vinson Institute joined Hooker as mediators during the session.
"Mediation is not the beginning of the process; we're here kind of in the middle," Hooker said as the meeting convened. "We're here to hopefully help you work through your issues."
Crowdis said before the meeting that if an agreement on the division of LOST funds is not reached by the end of October, the process would be extended to what the state is calling "baseball arbitration." During that process, each side would present its best case for division of funds, and a Superior Court judge would choose one side's or the other's with no further opportunity for negotiations.
"We're neutral in this," Boling said before the meeting started. "We try to help manage the process, try to help both sides find areas of compromise. But we don't suggest they compromise. This is their session, and these are their decisions.
"We're here to hopefully help them work through their issues with the LOST process."
City officials who took part in the session were Taylor, City Attorney Nathan Davis, consultant Michael Brown and commissioners Bob Langstaff and Christopher Pike. Representing the county were Crowdis, Lee, consultant Phil Sutton and commissioners Lamar Hudgins and Gaines.