Coleman to represent Albany in LOST arbitration

ALBANY -- The showdown for the 1 percent local-option sales tax funds that pour into Albany and Dougherty County every day, a showdown that has been acrimonious at times as city and county governments seek every crumb of the multimillion-dollar pie, has moved to the next and final stage.

City officials said in a recent release that they had jointly with the county sought a non-jury hearing on the matter, and their case had been assigned to Donalsonville Superior Court Judge Ronnie Joe Lane, who serves in the Pataula Circuit.

Lane has not yet scheduled a hearing date.

LOST taxes, which were implemented by the state of Georgia as a way to provide tax relief for property owners, are negotiated by the state's counties and their municipalities every 10 years with the release of census numbers. The state's General Assembly passed legislation two years ago that requires counties and municipalities to reach an amicable agreement on a split of the funds, based on eight criteria established by the Legislature, or face a best-offer "baseball arbitration" hearing before a judge.

Albany and Dougherty County officials were not successful in negotiating an agreement after several meetings and thus moved into a mediation stage that also proved unsuccessful. Under the new LOST statute, the decision will now be turned over to the court system for arbitration.

Both city and county officials have remained tight-lipped about the ongoing negotiations; representatives of both, however, have pointed to the $175,000 in funding each percentage of the LOST collections represents as vital to their budgets.

With a best and final offer pending, the city has turned to a familiar name to present its case, retaining the Albany-based Perry & Walters law firm. Former Albany Mayor Tommy Coleman, a Perry & Walters principal, will play a key role in representing the city's interests. As a representative of the city of Ashburn, Coleman prevailed in the state's first baseball arbitration hearing that was decided by the courts.

Coleman is also representing the city of Lakeland in its ongoing LOST hearings with Lanier County.

"The next thing in this case is to file a final and best offer," Coleman said Wednesday. "I had a meeting scheduled with the city's consultant this afternoon, but we had to reschedule. I don't want to guess what our best offer might be until I've had an opportunity to sit down with the consultant and talk further with city officials.

"What I hope we can do in this case is avoid hard feelings. I plan to present the city's case to the judge without a huge amount of conflict. The idea is to avoid a trial-like feel; it's arbitration. The judge is going to look at both sides and choose the one that confirms what he feels is in the best interest of the community."

The county has countered by hiring Vidalia-based attorney Wilson R. Smith to present its case. A partner in the Smith & Jenkins firm, Smith has been involved in the Toombs County/city of Lyons LOST negotiations.

Smith did not respond to a message left at his office Wednesday seeking comment.