FLETCHER: City, county jeopardize LOST funds

Opinion column

Carlton Fletcher

Carlton Fletcher

Do you really want to hurt me?

Culture Club

Perhaps taking a page from the federal government’s playbook, Albany and Dougherty County officials have set themselves on a course that threatens some $16 million in yearly local-option sales tax collections. More importantly, though, they’ve put city and county budgets in jeopardy for the next decade.

When the Georgia Supreme Court ruled last week that the state Legislature’s decision to allow superior court judges to make a “baseball arbitration” determination of the division of LOST funds for undecided cities and counties unconstitutional, it set in motion a series of events that culminated with what has proven to be continued disagreement between the local city and county commissions.

Since the law under which LOST division was based was ruled null and void, the question became for 21 counties and their municipalities how they would divide the 1 percent sales tax. If the state reverted to the former LOST law in place before the Legislature changed it last year, counties that didn’t have a LOST division certificate in place by Dec. 31, 2012 automatically lost the opportunity to collect the funds.

A group of attorneys appealed to the state Attorney General’s office to allow for the continued collection of the taxes for counties that had not met the original deadline, and the AG convinced the Department of Revenue to allow the collections. But DOR officials said counties had until 5 p.m. Thursday to have an agreement in place or risk losing the funds.

The Dougherty County Commission, which had been seeking as much as 55 to 59 percent of the LOST funds, sent Albany officials in December a written proposal to continue the 40-60 split, with the county receiving 40 percent, that had been in place in the county for 20 years. City officials, reportedly looking for between 70 and 80 percent of the funds, did not accept the offer.

When the DOR told counties they must have a LOST distribution certificate in place by Thursday, both the Dougherty County and Albany commissions called emergency special sessions to discuss the matter. The county voted Monday to agree to a continuation of the 40-60 split for the next decade.

The Albany City Commission agreed to the 60-40 split Tuesday, but its proposal was for one year only. Ward V City Commissioner Bob Langstaff offered the alternate proposal, saying city taxpayers were unfairly subsidizing services in the county. He mentioned a study that suggested the unincorporated section of the county should pay as much as $800,000 more for fire protection to reach equity.

County Commission Chairman Jeff Sinyard balked at that claim after the city’s meeting, saying, “Assuming that information is correct, it has nothing to do with LOST. The fire agreement is something separate and is in the process of being renegotiated.”

City Attorney Nathan Davis said he had to “study” whether the city’s alternate proposal met judicial scrutiny.

Meanwhile, at stake is more than $160 million in tax money over the next decade, a staggering amount that places city and county services and employee jobs in jeopardy. To meet the same level of service without the LOST funding, city taxpayers would reportedly face a tax millage increase between 6 and 9 percent.

Realistically, what would happen with the loss of the LOST funding would be considerable cutbacks in services and the loss of both city and county jobs.

As Sinyard ominously put it Tuesday, “We need to make sure we send the best decision to Atlanta. Having questions surrounding this issue is not a can we want to kick down the road. This is not something we want to play games with.”

Email Metro Editor Carlton Fletcher at carlton.fletcher@albanyherald.com.