City agrees to 60/40 LOST split, but only for one year

ALBANY — The Albany City Commission deftly returned the LOST ball to the Dougherty County Commission’s court Tuesday morning, voting to accept a 60-40 split of the estimated $16 million tax collections recommended by the county Monday, but for only a one-year period.

With a Thursday deadline to reach an agreement or risk losing the funding altogether looming, County Commission Chairman Jeff Sinyard huddled with County Administrator Richard Crowdis and County Attorney Spencer Lee Tuesday afternoon after word of the city’s vote became official.

Ward V Commissioner Bob Langstaff offered a motion to approve the split, but he noted before making it that his resolution was “slightly different from the county’s.”

“I’m concerned that the city taxpayers are increasingly subsidizing services in the unincorporated portion of the county,” Langstaff said. “For example, a Carl Vinson Institute study shows that the county should pay an additional $800,000 to fairly compensate the city for fire protection services. And the county lost 10 percent of its population over the 10 years of the last census, while the city population was relatively the same.

“Realizing that we have to pass something while we agree to disagree, I’d like to see us do something that will not tie the city’s hands until 2022. I propose then that we agree to the split suggested by the county for the next year. That will give the Legislature time to clear up the law, and it will give us time to go back to the negotiating table with the county. I make a motion that we accept a resolution for a LOST split of 60 percent for the city and 40 percent for the county through Dec. 31, 2014.”

The City Commission approved the proposal unanimoulsy, but Mayor Dorothy Hubbard said after the vote she was not fully comfortable with the proposal.

“Honestly, I thought I had four votes coming into the meeting to agree to the 60-40 split,” Hubbard said immediately after the meeting. “The question now becomes is this a workable solution? Commissioner Langstaff and Commissioner (Christopher) Pike have been the city’s representatives during LOST negotiations, and I do feel like we have to listen to their concerns. They seem to think there are a lot of factors that indicate the city should get more of the LOST funds.

“I respect their concerns, but I don’t want to see this jeopardize this funding.”

LOST (local-option sales tax) was implemented in Georgia in the 1970s as a way to give property owners tax relief. Counties and municipalities within those counties negotiate a split of the 1 percent tax every 10 years. Albany and Dougherty County were among 21 counties and municipalities that did not reach an agreement on division of the funds after the 2010 census. Meanwhile, the state Supreme Court ruled last week that the Legislature’s method of determining an equitable split for the remaining counties and municipalities — “baseball arbitration” before a Superior Court judge — was unconstitutional.

The county voted at its meeting Monday to continue the 40-60 split after the state imposed a Thursday deadline that could jeopardize collection of the tax if an agreement is not in place. County officials were in meetings Tuesday afternoon to determine whether to accept the city’s counter proposal.

“Outside legal counsel has advised us that the ACCG (Association County Commissioners of Georgia) is pushing for this type of short-term solution,” Langstaff said after Tuesday’s meeting. “Since ACCG represents the state’s counties, we feel we’d be on safe ground going with the one-year agreement.

“This is all a gamble anyway. There’s no assurance that any of this is going to get certified by the state.”

Ward VI Commissioner Tommie Postell said after the meeting, “Lawyers have different opinions, but the ultimate goal is to reach an agreement. We need to continue to negotiate, but I’d much rather give the county their 40 percent than risk losing our 60 percent.”

Asked if the proposal approved by the commission would hold up to state scrutiny, City Attorney Nathan Davis said, “That’s something I’ll have to study before I answer. I’m just going to try to get a certificate to the state by their deadline.”