From an outsider’s view, it may appear that Decatur County commissioners and City of Bainbridge leaders are having another “failure to communicate,” although officials on both sides say they want to work with each other.
You may remember in late August, when Bainbridge Mayor Edward Reynolds and Decatur County Board of Commissioners Chairman Frank Loeffler traded letters and eventually met at Loeffler’s home to smooth over a misunderstanding.
The latest round of correspondence occurred between Sept. 9 – Sept. 16, and was discussed briefly at Decatur County commissioners’ meeting on Tuesday, Sept. 23.
At the Bainbridge City Council’s meeting on August 5, two attorneys hired by the city presented an outline of 10 areas in which they feel “double taxation” or failure to provide services is occurring. The city’s attorneys, A.J. “Buddy” Welch of McDonough, Ga., and colleague Michael Brown, had been filing open records requests with Decatur County government related to budgeting and county-provided services since Fall 2013, culminating in the presentation to the City Council.
Another product of Welch and Brown’s work was a bound, numerous-page report delivered to Decatur County commissioners. The report essentially outlines service delivery areas that the City of Bainbridge would like to negotiate with county officials on. For example, what should Decatur County’s contribution to Bainbridge Leisure Services programs be, given that they serve some children from outside Bainbridge city limits?
These service delivery agreements were last updated in 2010 as part of both local governments’ updating of their comprehensive plans, which was mandated by the State of Georgia.
The City Council had also agreed to give authority to Mayor Reynolds, City Manager Chris Hobby, attorneys Welch and Brown, and local attorney David Kendrick (who had represented the city during negotiations of how to split up proceeds from SPLOST) to meet with county officials regarding the service delivery agreements.
On, Sept. 9, the city’s attorney, Buddy Welch, sent a letter to Decatur County Attorney Brown Moseley, asking why county leaders had not responded to city officials’ requests to meet and discuss the service delivery changes that had been proposed.
In a response dated Sept. 16, County Attorney Moseley seemingly invited the City of Bainbridge’s representatives to attend Decatur County commissioners’ meeting on Sept. 23, saying he anticipated service delivery would be on the meeting’s agenda.
“Decatur County is extremely sensitive to Service Delivery,” Attorney Moseley wrote. “Decatur County has faithfully delivered services throughout the 600+ square miles of the county, and we continue to improve the level of service to all the citizens of the county.”
As it happened, “City correspondence” was a last-minute addition to the agenda of Tuesday’s meeting. Referring to the correspondence, Commission Chairman Frank Loeffler suggested forming a committee comprised of himself, vice-chairman Dennis Brinson and County Administrator Gary Breedlove which would “review the information sent by the city” and report back to the full Board of Commissioners.
County Commissioner Butch Mosely, who said he had given the situation some thought, suggested the committee’s membership might also include an impartial citizen from both the City of Bainbridge and Decatur County.
Mosely said he was concerned that a lot of money could be spent by both local governments before the issues were resolved, if the current impasse continued.
“If only there was some way we could reach a gentlemen and ladies’ agreement that would prohibit us from ending up in court,” Commissioner Mosely said. “Things are bad enough as it is. We’re not getting it done.”
County commissioners voted unanimously to form the committee as proposed by Loeffler and amended by Mosely.
What happens next?
We talked to both Frank Loeffler, the current chairman of the County Board of Commissioners, and Bainbridge Mayor Edward Reynolds after the meeting had ended Tuesday night to get a sense for what will happen next. (You might also recall that in late August, county commissioners had pulled out of the scheduled quarterly meetings at which the two governments’ elected officials were to discuss mutual issues of concern.)
Loeffler acknowledged that his time on the Board of County Commissioners is ending this December. He said he was committed to helping the committee begin the process of reviewing the service delivery proposals sent over by the City of Bainbridge.
“The documents they sent us took them ten months of research to prepare,” Loeffler said. “We need time to review the proposals, do our own research and formulate our response. We want to do this right, and do it fairly, and that’s what the committee will work on.”
Loeffler said the county government was not in a financial position where it could afford to write the City of Bainbridge a $500,000 check every year to offset any expenses the City of Bainbridge believes the county owes to them. However, Loeffler said county officials were willing to discuss agreements, provided that they had the chance to present their own findings as to which services they provide that are enjoyed by city residents.
Bainbridge City Manager Chris Hobby has said that city officials are not seeking a payout; however on the other hand, an observer could logically assume that if Decatur County ends up agreeing to provide additional services or contributions, that it would spend more on services than it does currently.
I asked Mayor Reynolds, “What do you hope the procedure for discussing service delivery to be? And how would you characterize in general what you hope the resolution will be like?”
Reynolds: “My hope is the County will accept the suggestion to have the Administrator, Chairman and their consultant to meet with myself, the city manager and our consultant. In addition, that the Commission would give their representatives the ability to negotiate with us on these important issues. We cannot continue to allow City residents to pay for service they do not receive.”
“Each government needs to have a clear understanding of what is expected for each of us to provide to all county citizens–those who live in Bainbridge and those who live outside the city.”
“We also need to address other areas where our services overlap to insure the most cost-effective solutions for citizens.”