Albany City Commissioner Roger Marietta said Thursday that by acepting the 60/40 local option sales tax split with Dougherty County, the city of Albany was subsidizing some county services. (Herald file photo)
ALBANY — It was Ward IV Albany City Commissioner Roger Marietta who perhaps best summed up the sentiment of his colleagues after they voted 6-1 to approve a 60-40 split of local-option sales tax funds rather than risk losing the estimated $16 million that is generated in the county annually by the 1 percent tax.
“Here’s a good headline for (The Albany Herald) tomorrow: ‘City votes to subsidize county,’” Marietta said.
That sentiment prevailed throughout a 35-minute special called meeting Thursday morning that ended with the commission voting to accept a 60 percent split of the LOST funding that has been in place in Dougherty County since the inception of the tax, levied to provide relief for property owners. City officials had wanted as much as 80 percent of the LOST funding, and they were set to go to superior court arbitration to have the matter decided when the Georgia Supreme Court pulled the rug out from under those plans by ruling that judicial arbitration to settle LOST funding is unconstitutional under separation of powers statutes.
The Dougherty County Commission, after learning that the state Department of Revenue required a LOST distribution certificate in its office by 4:30 p.m. Thursday, voted at a special called meeting Monday to keep the 40-60 split in place. The county had sought as much as 55 percent of the funding during negotiations.
The city countered Tuesday morning by voting to keep the 60-40 split in place for one year and continue negotiations, but the county rejected that proposal. A joint letter from the directors of the Association County Commissioners of Georgia and the Georgia Municipal Association sent Wednesday urging counties and their municipalities to file a “clean” agreement with no termination dates as a condition convinced the city to accept the county’s proposal.
“On Tuesday, using the best information we had available, we voted to seek a LOST certificate for less than 10 years,” Ward V Commissioner Bob Langstaff said after Mayor Dorothy Hubbard completed a roll call of commissioners required because less than 24 hours of public notice was given for the meeting. “Since that time, the ACCG and GMA have issued a joint statement saying no such restrictions should be placed on LOST certificates sent to the Department of Revenue. They were concerned that it would put our LOST in jeopardy.
“I personally think the 60-40 split between the city and county is unfair, and this board was willing to risk having an unbiased third party decide that. Unfortunately, the Supreme Court ruled that element of state law unconstitutional. We find ourselves now with no real mechanism to resolve how our LOST should be split. We can only hope that the Legislature will fix that.”
After offering that explanation, Langstaff went on to say that he supported the city accepting the terms set forth by the county so as not to jeopardize the tax funding.
“We can’t put that tax money at risk,” he said. “Time has simply run out. I believe we have to accept the 60-40 split, even though I feel it is a loss for the city. I believe city taxpayers are subsidizing county services, and while I am ready today to vote to approve the resolution proposed by the county, I pledge to work from this point on to get the most equitable (tax split) for the citizens of Albany.”
Ward VI Commissioner Tommie Postell echoed Langstaff’s sentiments.
“We’ve tried to work in a brotherly manner with the county, and I feel comfortable with this compromise we’ve worked out,” he said. “I just hate that we’ve wasted all this time getting to this point. I do want to point out that the county has tried to paint the picture that (the disagreement over LOST distribution) is all the city. It was the city and county involved in a dispute.
“This was not a county-city argument; we just wanted to be fair to all our citizens. There were some in the county who criticized the city, saying, ‘Y’all have Water, Gas & Light.’ I want to make sure they know the city’s relationship with Water, Gas & Light is none of their business. They had a similar kind of arrangement with Phoebe (Putney Memorial Hospital), but they gave it away.”
Ward III Commissioner Christopher Pike and Ward II’s Ivey Hines, both of whom are up for re-election in the Nov. 5 municipal election, were the harshest critics of the proposal. Pike was the only commissioner to vote against the agreement.
“I’m not in favor of this because, since I’ve been on the commission, the city has been on the losing end of every negotiation with the county,” he said. “This vote today sets a big precedent. We’ve basically raised city taxes to subsidize county fire protection.
“At some point, the seven people at this table have got to stand up and do what’s best for the people of Albany. I don’t think this vote is going to end our disagreement with the county, and at some point we’re going to have to develop the wherewithal to stand up to them.”
Hines said: “It seems we’re back now to the point that we’re always going to be in because we’re afraid of losing our 60 percent. Our consultant told us we should be getting 80 percent (of LOST funds); imagine the millions of dollars we’ve lost over the years by agreeing to 60 percent. It’s blatantly unfair.
“The people of Albany are being mistreated, and until we change this process, we’re going to continue to have a 60-40 split. The county does not believe we have the nerve to stand up to them, and that’s left some people saying we now have egg on our face. We’ve been painted in the community as the bad boys and girl, and we’re folding under that pressure. The county has shown no willingness to negotiate, and that’s unfair to the city and the residents of my ward.”
Dougherty County Commission Chairman Jeff Sinyard said in a phone call minutes after the vote was taken that he was happy to see the plan formally adopted by both governing bodies.
“It’s good to see the city and county come together and make the right decision for our citizens,” he said. “We set the tone in the community, and I think it’s important that we work together to find the best outcome for the people of the city and county. This is a step in making that happen.
“I’m just pleased that, in the end, no one ended up robbing Peter to pay Paul. I think the majority of people in the city and county want to see governments working together rather than getting into the kind of deadlock we see with our federal government.”
Asked if the animosity over the LOST outcome might filter over into a series of intergovernmental agreements between the city and county that will be negotiated over the next two years, Sinyard said he didn’t think that would happen.
“I look forward to us continuing to work together with the mutual respect we have for each other,” he said. “I can’t imagine that anyone would let our negotiations get into personal issues and politics. If that were to happen, then you’d have to believe anyone doing that would be serving this community for the wrong reason.”
Commissioners Jon Howard (Ward I) and Marietta, as well as Mayor Hubbard, indicated the city would more closely scrutinize intergovernmental agreement negotiations in the coming months.
“Today’s vote was not a gamble I was willing to take,” Howard said. “I’m not much of a gambler. And I’m of the opinion that (losing the LOST funding altogether) would be political suicide for everyone involved. More importantly, though, the citizens of the city and county could not afford this additional burden.
“I’m not happy with this deal, but it’s in everyone’s best interest. I’m willing to bite the bullet and do what’s right, but I’m reminding my colleagues that when we negotiate (intergovernmental agreements) with our friends across the hall, we’ve got to work hard to make sure we get our fair share.”
Marietta, noting the “good points” made by his colleagues, offered a motion to accept the resolution for the 60-40 LOST split and said, “We need to move on now and focus on those intergovernmental agreements and being bold enough to stand up for what we believe is right for the citizens of Albany.”
Hubbard lamented the fact that the city never got to present its case (for a higher percentage of the LOST funds) publicly or have an arbiter rule on its validity.
“Anybody in their right mind knows that in 30 years there are changes,” Hubbard said. “That’s the part that’s disgusting to me, that (LOST collections) have not changed in all that time. But we’ve followed the process that was in place throughout this. And while some of us feel this (split) is unfair, not to pass this resolution would put a huge dent in our current budget and most likely mean a tax increase. That’s not a gamble I’m willing to take.”
County Administrator Richard Crowdis said shortly after the city’s vote that he’d already begun the process to get the signed LOST distribution certificate to the Revenue Department.