County says no to city's LOST proposal

ALBANY — The Dougherty County Commission has drawn a line in the sand over collection of local-option sales tax funds, rejecting the city’s offer Tuesday to approve a 60-40 split of the funds — with the city getting 60 percent — through Dec. 31, 2014 rather than the 10-year period sought by the county.

A letter hand-delivered to City Attorney Nathan Davis by County Attorney Spencer Lee’s office late Tuesday afternoon reads, in part, “Please be advised that all the members of the County Commission have been polled and are unanimous in rejecting the city’s offer to provide for the distribution of the LOST proceeds at 60 percent for the city and 40 percent for the county through Dec. 31, 2014.”

City Manager James Taylor acknowledged receipt of the letter Wednesday morning and said the continued impasse is indicative of the noncommunicative nature during the whole LOST negotiating process.

“There’s a lot of talk going on right now, but where we are at this point is that the county has rejected the city’s plan to continue the 60-40 distribution for one year while resuming negotiations,” Taylor said. “I’m disappointed that there hasn’t been very much communication throughout this entire process. I don’t get a vote on this, but I’m sure (city) commissioners will discuss this again before the deadline.”

The state Department of Revenue has decreed that a “clear” distribution certificate must be received by 4:30 p.m. today or counties and municipalities stand to lose the 1 percent collection of tax funds, which in Dougherty County is projected to be slightly more than $16 million this year.

The Herald has learned that both city and county officials received a joint communication Wednesday from Georgia Municipal Association Executive Director Lamar Norton and Association County Commissioners of Georgia Executive Director Ross King recommending that they send a clear certificate to the state, one that does not include conditions such as the termination date included in the city’s proposal.

The letter reads, in part, “To reiterate, we strongly recommend that new LOST certificates be approved by, and signed by, each jurisdiction expected to receive a share of LOST revenues. … If a unanimous certificate is impossible, then the ‘next best alternative’ … would be a new certificate approved by, and signed by, the county and by qualified municipalities representing at least 50 percent of the aggregate municipal population of all qualified municipalities in the district.”

But the letter warns that a non-unanimous agreement might jeopardize further LOST collections.

“There is no guarantee that a non-unanimous certificate will prevent a LOST from lapsing,” the letter said. It further states, “We also recommend that LOST certificates be submitted ‘clean,’ meaning that there be no conditions attached to the certificates such as future termination dates, making the certificates subject to future arbitration. … We understand that some jurisdictions may be already considering attaching conditions such as future termination dates to encourage future negotiations. However, the Revenue department may not enforce any such conditions.

“The bottom line is simple,” the letter continued. “Agreement on a new negotiated certificate must be reached, approved, signed and submitted to the Department of Revenue by 4:30 p.m. on October 17th or the LOST in your special district could very well lapse.”

Dougherty County Commission Chairman Jeff Sinyard said he hopes the letter from Norton and King will help clear up the local impasse.

“All I really care about is seeing the commissions working together to get this done,” he said.

Meanwhile, Taylor and city Finance Director Kris Newton confirmed Wednesday county officials’ contention that they had paid all monies due the city for fire protection under an agreement that is set to expire next year.

Ward III City Commissioner Christopher Pike, who is running for re-election against challengers Cheryl Calhoun and B.J. Fletcher, had said at a candidate forum Tuesday evening that the county had refused to pay money it owed the city for fire protection. Pike told an audience of about 50 at the Our Daily Bread restaurant downtown, “The city refused to pay some $700,00 to $800,000 for fire protection, leaving us with a choice to either close the fire stations (in the county) and let people’s houses burn down or make up for the money they owed.”

Pike said Wednesday afternoon, “The city taxpayers are having to subsidize the county’s fire protection.”

Taylor said Wednesday morning preliminary results of a study conducted by the Carl Vinson Institute showed that the county was underpaying “by as much as $800,000” for fire protection in the unincorporated section of the county, but he said county officials had paid all payments due on the fire coverage.

“Based on the study, we can argue that the county is not paying what fire protection costs,” Taylor said. “But the county is paying all funds currently due under the agreement we have with them.”

Newton confirmed Taylor’s statement, noting, “The county has always paid what we’ve billed them based on the agreement in place.”