2019-01-10 / Front Page

County and City will work to reconcile service delivery agreement before June

By SPARKY NEWSOME
editor and publisher

According to state law, Wilkes County and the City of Washington must update their Service Delivery Strategy every 10 years and this is the year for it. An agreement must be in place by the end of June this year. City officials have already met several times concerning the matter but a meeting held Monday evening, January 7, was the first time city and county officials have met together for a serious discussion of the matter.

At the conclusion of the meeting, County Commission Chairman Sam Moore, Washington Mayor Ames Barnett, and Washington City Administrator Sherri Bailey agreed to meet to discuss the particulars, work out a plan, and then present that plan to county and city officials for approval. The process could include assistance from the CSRA Regional Commission which has helped in the past at no cost, but that option was not made clear.

The Service Delivery Strategy (SDS) is what governs spending by the city and the county on services that may or may not be provided by one or the other; or that may be shared, as in the case of the Washington Wilkes Parks and Recreation Department, for example. The concern most expressed during the meeting was that the tax millage rate for the incorporated area of the county (currently 12.263) is higher than the millage rate for the unincorporated area of the county (currently 11.675), with a difference of 0.588.

At the onset of the meeting, Barnett explained that the city had hired a consultant some months ago to study and explain the rate differential. Since that time, the city has met with that consultant on various occasions, at least two of which were held in executive session where the public was not allowed.

The consultant “started finding things and we realized we had to have this negotiated by June anyway. We paid [the consultant] to do that and now we know some numbers and want to sit down with the county,” Barnett said.

“The county probably thinks they pay more on some of their items than they should, and we think that we pay more for some items than we should,” he continued. “At the end of the day, the city and the county have got to get along to be successful.” He also urged caution in spending money with attorneys and consultants in order to reach a resolution.

“This city and county have gotten along probably better than any city and county that I know of in our region or maybe even the state,” Moore commented. “The City of Washington and Wilkes County have always gotten along and worked together.” However, the chairman went on to point out that things have changed since the last SDS agreement was formulated, including the elimination of the city’s police department, upgrades to the 911 system, upgrades to the Emergency Management Agency (EMA), and more. “But there’s nothing we can’t work through without hiring a consultant,” he added.

The city’s consultant previously reported to the city that the county is doing some things wrong on how it figures millage rates and on how it keeps its books according to the difference between taxes collected from the incorporated versus unincorporated areas of the county.

Moore countered by saying that he had talked to multiple people with the Association County Commissioners of Georgia (ACCG) just this week who all assured him that the county is “doing it right.”

Bailey questioned how the county pays the city for services and whether the money just comes out of the General Fund. She indicated that according to the state law which prescribes SDS, there should be separate accounts for city tax revenue and county tax revenue and that services should be paid for accordingly in order to avoid “double taxation” on city residents.

“I talked to the Legislative Director for ACCG,” Moore explained. “We went through how we figured the incorporated and unincorporated rates and he said we were doing it right. I talked to the Executive Director of ACCG – these are the people who tell the counties how to figure it – and they both tell us that we are doing it right. I cannot go by what some consultant who is out to make money says. I’ve got to go by the state and the people who approved the mill rates that we set. We go by what ACCG says we should be doing – as of this week.”

Washington City Attorney Barry Fleming likened the confusion to the difference in watching a soccer game as opposed to watching a football game. Since soccer is relatively new to the American culture, some of the rules are not as clearly defined as those of football, which is securely ingrained in the minds of most sports fans.

“All these rules about Service Delivery Strategy are like a soccer game,” Fleming said. “This is a new game that cities and counties have not been playing for a long time, and they have just been doing things the way they have been doing them. What has happened is that someone started looking at the rule book.”

Fleming went on to point out that he is familiar with a similar situation in Putnam County where he represents the county rather than the City of Eatonton. Eatonton had hired the same consultant as the City of Washington and they had reached the conclusion that the consultant was correct. “They worked it out,” he said, “though it was rough at the start. The county changed the way they did the books.”

Fleming further stated that the law says that the county must keep two sets of books, separating the money it collects from city taxes from the money it collects from county taxes. “And if you have an agreement with the City to have a rec department [for example], when you write your check to pay for your half, you have to write it out of the account for the money that came from just the county,” he said. “You can’t write it out of the account where the money came out of the city. You have to keep those two separate.”

“None of this stuff, with the way lawyers can twist things around, is ever going to get settled because every city and county are different.” Moore countered. He referred to a case between Greene County and the City of Union Point with which he is familiar and quoted a letter from a Union Point official who “thinks the lawyers are making too much money off of the case.

“$500,000 was spent by Union Point arguing with Greene County over dispatch of 911 services over $30,000. They spent a half a million dollars,” Moore said.

“The agreement is what we agree on, and nobody else will care,” Moore continued. “They can confuse you, and talk about it, and go around in circles, and never make a complete point.”

Fleming agreed. “You can agrue about this and waste a lot of time, effort, and money,” he said. “Or you can come to an agreement and you don’t have to argue. But here’s the thing. If the county doesn’t start keeping the books like the law says, you’re setting up the next commission and council, 10 years from now, to have the same argument you’re having right now.”

Barnett interjected, concerning how the county keeps its books, “We can’t sit here and manage how the county runs, but if we figure out the percentages [on these accounts], and if we get the millage rates where we are happy …”

Fleming indicated that there can be an agreement to do it “not like the law says, and as long as nobody calls you on it, you can keep doing it that way.”

County Commissioner Esper Lee suggested using something like a “checkerboard” to help figure county and city expenditures and responsibilities for each service offered, taking one at a time, figuring out percentages and amounts, and then consolidating them all to determine exactly what the city’s millage rate and the county’s millage rate should be.

Fleming complimented Lee on describing exactly what the state intends for SDS.

“Definitely, the services have changed in the last 10 years, so there have to be some adjustments on some things,” Moore said.

“Can y’all get together,” Councilman Marion Tutt suggested of Moore, Barnett, and Bailey, “and come up with a little plan, and come back so we can get this thing over with?”

“We can do that,” Barnett responded.

“I think we can come up with something to present to the City Council and the County Commission and if we need to agrue some more we can,” Moore said, also stating that it suits him fine to meet with Barnett and Bailey to come up with percentages of spending.

At the end of the meeting, Councilman Maceo Mahoney commented that it was the first time he had seen a joint meeting of the city and county officials where the issues of each were shared and discussed.

“I think it would be great,” Mahoney said, “at least once a year, for both the city and county to come to the table, not to argue, but to talk about what’s going on with the city, what’s going on with the county, and how we can work together. It will make things better.”

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