At Tuesday’s Bainbridge City Council meeting, Mayor Edward Reynolds read aloud a statement responding to Monday’s open records request by Decatur County Attorney Brown Moseley.
In the statement, Reynolds expressed disappointment that in his view, Decatur County officials “choose to dodge and weave instead of talking about city residents paying county taxes for services they aren’t receiving.”
Mayor Reynolds said that instead of talking about what he believes to be serious issues, “…instead the county attorney asks for invoices for sinks in the new city hall, minutes from city council meetings he attended and payroll information for all city employees. None of this has anything to do with the county providing services to city residents.”
[Read the full statement by Mayor Reynolds at the City Council meeting on 10/21/14]
In their defense, county officials have pointed out that it took almost a year between the time the city’s attorneys began making a series of extensive open records requests and sent a lengthy, bound proposal to Decatur County commissioners.
County officials, including Moseley and County Administrator Breedlove, have said the city’s open records requests were “twice as big” and took dozens of man hours to respond to. When asked where county officials should send their responses to open records requests, they were told to forward them directly to the city’s attorneys in suburban Atlanta, according to Breedlove.
On Tuesday afternoon, Sowegalive.com asked Brown Moseley what the motivations behind Monday’s open records request were.
Moseley said that for the most part, the 21 items requested (most of them groups of documents) on Monday concern how county officials will respond to the city government’s request to meet and discuss proposed changes in an intergovernmental agreement known as the service delivery agreements. The service delivery strategies essentially spell out which services each local government in a county provides to citizens, and generally describes how those services are to be funded.
The City of Bainbridge is upset because they believe there are some government services that Decatur County has either agreed to provide and is not, or agreed to contribute toward paying for, and is not, or that there are areas in which Bainbridge property owners pay taxes for county services they don’t receive. It’s important to keep in mind that there are two sides to this argument, and accusations do not always amount to the truth.
Even City Manager Chris Hobby has said that he expects there will have to be compromise between the two governments on the issues. Reynolds maintained Tuesday that no compromise can be approached without the two sides coming together to talking about the issues in the first place.
Moseley said he did not agree with the assertion of Buddy Welch, one of the city’s attorneys, that a special tax district may need to be set up for residents of unincorporated Decatur County. What effect would that have, we asked Moseley?
“It would increase the taxes of everyone who lives in the unincorporated area of Decatur County,” the attorney said. Instead of all taxpayers paying to operate the Decatur County Jail, Moseley alleges a special tax district would make it so that Bainbridge property taxpayers would not have to chip in toward that service. Although Bainbridge sends most of the people it arrests (and whom are not bonded out) to a jail in Pelham, Ga., people accused of more serious crimes are still taken to the Decatur County Jail; therefore, Moseley argued the jail is still a joint service.
“If we considered a special tax district, it would be our decision, not Welch’s. To date, they have not made a persuasive case that would be necessary,” Moseley said.
Do some of the open records requests constitute personal attacks?
Some of the open records requests Moseley made Monday appear to specifically target Hobby.
[Please see also: What about that ‘wet bar’ in the Bainbridge City Manager’s office?]
A couple of requests in particular ask for copies of any reprimands in City Manager Hobby’s personnel file and any documentation related to if and when city officials or employees knew about a situation in which Chris Hobby was delaying payment of his monthly utility bills to an once-annual payment, in violation of city policy. (Hobby paid the late fees and interest he would have normally accrued; the Bainbridge City Council also suspended him from his job for a week without pay. He also voluntarily apologized to city employees and residents at a Council meeting.)
We asked Moseley what was behind those requests.
“At some point, it was discovered that Chris Hobby was not paying his utility bills on time. Once discovered, someone let it stayed covered up. That would have never been made public if the press had not been made aware of it. We want to see if anything else [regarding Hobby] has been covered up over there.”
I pointed out to the attorney that some city officials, including Mayor Reynolds, had previously accused Decatur County officials of making personal attacks on Hobby when the utility bill situation was first brought to light. (Decatur County officials, acting on a rumor, requested pertinent documents from the City of Bainbridge; before the county received a response, Hobby informed The Bainbridge Post-Searchlight about the situation and provided documentation directly to the newspaper. County Commission Chairman Frank Loeffler later said that if the newspaper had not published the information on Hobby’s utility billls, then county officials would have brought the issue to light.)
“It’s not a personal attack, it’s a matter of management,” Attorney Moseley said. Moseley’s main points of contention were: Hobby’s water and sewer service was never cut off during the multi-year period his bills were only being paid annually, whereas “a regular citizen’s” utility service would have been cut off after 30 days of non-payment; and secondly, that Moseley and others believe Hobby’s personal financial struggles have a direct correlation with his ability to manage the City of Bainbridge’s $22 million budget.
What are the service delivery strategy agreements?
The City of Bainbridge made multiple open records requests of its own to Decatur County leaders starting in Fall 2013 and continuing into early 2014. City officials have previously said they did so with the goal of researching the two governments’ joint service delivery strategies, documents they State of Georgia required they maintain. The reason they are required is because some metro Atlanta counties, which are densely populated and have multiple local governments with big budgets, sued each other after accusations of double taxation, due to overlapping services.
[You can read a summary of the Decatur County service delivery agreements, last revised in 2007; it’s not very descriptive and we will attempt to find a more precise version of the agreements]
For example, the Development Authority of Decatur County, which aims to recruit new industries and businesses, is a joint service which both county and city residents benefit from. The service delivery strategies revised in 2007 state that Decatur County is responsible for 75 percent of the Development Authority’s funding, and the City of Bainbridge is responsible for the other 25 percent.
In the area of recreation, the City of Bainbridge is listed as being responsible for providing recreation serving all county residents, however, that is to be done under the terms of an intergovernmental agreement. Decatur County commissioners had originally agreed to contribute $65,000 annually to help the City of Bainbridge provide recreation; however, Decatur County has been unable to make that contribution the past couple of years due to continued budget shortfalls.
Even without contributing to Bainbridge Leisure Services, Decatur County officials say they still provide recreation by maintaining the Silver Lake Wildlife Management Area and the many county boat ramps onto the Flint River and Lake Seminole.
Mayor Reynolds has said that it should not have come as a surprise to Decatur County that city leaders would research the service delivery strategies and whether or not they were being followed. The mayor said a deadlocked argument between the City of Bainbridge and Decatur County over how the one-cent SPLOST tax receipts should be split up by local governments was only resolved after the two sides agreed to revisit certain taxation issues later.
Bainbridge and Decatur County almost faced off against each other in court when deciding how to split the one-cent LOST tax (it can be used for general government expenses, unlike SPLOST) back in 2012. (To see how bad it got then, please read: City and county may go to court over LOST (The Post-Searchlight, Nov. 20, 2012)
As Reynolds said on Tuesday night, “I must remind my friends down the street that we have a signed agreement, passed by both governments, that said we would meet and we would address Service Delivery. Their failure to do so is forcing us towards an outcome that will only involve more lawyers, more cost and a court-imposed solution.”