City of Bainbridge sues Decatur County; asks court to appoint mediator




Decatur County Board of Commissioners Chairman Frank Loeffler, seated left, and Bainbridge Mayor Edward Reynolds, seated right, sign a pledge to support the future work of a joint council of governments that will meet quarterly to discuss issues of mutual interest. (April 29, 2014)
Decatur County Board of Commissioners Chairman Frank Loeffler, seated left, and Bainbridge Mayor Edward Reynolds, seated right, sign a pledge to support the future work of a joint council of governments that will meet quarterly to discuss issues of mutual interest. (April 29, 2014)

The City of Bainbridge has filed a lawsuit against Decatur County Board of Commissioners in Decatur County Superior Court, asking a judge to appoint a mediator to oversee service delivery negotiations between the two governments.

Bainbridge, GA Mayor Edward Reynolds
Bainbridge, GA Mayor Edward Reynolds

The Georgia Service Delivery Act was adopted as state law in 1997. The law states “the process … is intended to minimize ineffeciency resulting from duplication of services and competition between local governments and to provide a mechanism to resolve disputes over local government service delivery, funding equity and land use.”

“We are not suing the county to try and recover money directly to the city,” Bainbridge Mayor Edward Reynolds. “We’re trying to bring the service delivery process to a resolution and remove the tax inequity that exists for county taxpayers who live within the City of Bainbridge.”

On Nov. 4, the Bainbridge City Council voted 5-1 to pass a resolution authorizing attorney Buddy Welch of McDonough, Ga., to proceed with the lawsuit. Welch is one of three attorneys consulting the city on service delivery issues. At the same meeting, Mayor Reynolds alluded to a “small group” meeting between representatives from the city and county governments and said he was hopeful that progress was being made.

Decatur County Commissioner Dennis Brinson
Decatur County Commissioner Dennis Brinson

On Wednesday, Nov. 11, representatives from both the Bainbridge City Council and Decatur County Board of Commissioners sat down together. Mayor Reynolds said those present included himself, Councilwoman Glennie Bench and Councilman Luther Conyers; representing the county were County Commissioner Dennis Brinson, County Commissioner-elect Pete Stephens and County Commissioner-elect Rusty Davis.

Brinson, who will serve as county commissioners’ chairman in 2015, and Davis, who was elected Nov. 4, both represent districts located within the City of Bainbridge.

“The meeting was positive and we had some good communication,” Mayor Reynolds said of Tuesday’s meeting. “I think we still have a lot of differences to work out…from the city’s perspective, we feel there will still be a need for a mediator to help us work through these complex issues.”

 

Mayor: city seeks mediator because county hasn’t responded to other requests

buddy_welch
Attorney A.J. “Buddy” Welch Jr.

The service delivery agreements essentially spell out how core local government services will be provided and how the costs and responsibilities will be shared between multiple governments within a county. The State of Georgia requires the service delivery agreements to be updated when local governments decide on how proceeds from the one-cent Local Option Sales Tax (LOST) will be split up. The most recent LOST negotiations in 2012 were contentious, with the City of Bainbridge requesting a larger share of LOST distributions and Decatur County rebuffing them. According to city officials, the LOST negotiations were only resolved because there was a deadline for submitting documents to the state government; the LOST distribution formula was kept the same as in previous years, with mutual agreement to re-visit service delivery issues at a later time.

So far, that hasn’t happened yet, Mayor Reynolds said.

On August 19, Attorney Buddy Welch delivered proposed Service Delivery Strategy agreements to the Decatur County Board of Commissioners. The proposed agreements were divided into four categories: Countywide Services, City Services, Services Primarily for the Benefit of the Unincorporated Area; and Services Provided through Intergovernmental Agreement. In a letter to County Commission Chairman Frank Loeffler, Welch requested the county government provide the names of two proposed mediators and suggest three dates to meet to begin discussions concerning the service delivery strategy agreements.

The city of Bainbridge’s attorneys, Welch and local attorney David Kendrick, made two followup correspondences on Sept. 9 and Oct. 23, respectively, again requesting that the county let the city know when and where the negotiations would start.meeting-WEB County officials have said they needed time to review the proposed service delivery strategy agreements and conduct further research on the operations of local governments before they would be ready to sit down at the table with city officials.

At a town hall meeting held on Nov. 4, Mayor Reynolds countered the county’s stance, suggesting that county officials should have been aware of the need to conduct their own research after attorney Welch sent a 16-page open records request to county officials in November 2013. The Nov. 2013 open records request did not specifically mention service delivery strategy agreements or any other reason for requesting the documents, for that matter, however the scope of the documents and records requested was quite large. County officials said it took dozens, perhaps hundreds, of employee hours to prepare responses to the city’s requests.

Mayor Reynolds said Friday that requesting a court appoint a mediator for forced negotiations on service delivery appears to be the only way to “move the process forward.”

“We never heard anything back,” the mayor said of the city’s requests to set up meeting times. “We continue to receive open records requests from the county that are not related to service delivery…their requests seem to be related to how we manage different departments within the city government. We’re not doing that to them and we would hope they wouldn’t criticize our management style. That’s not what this is about.”

 

What mediation might accomplish

shake_handsAccording to the Georgia Department of Community Services, “Mediation is a type of alternative dispute resolution in which the conflicting parties request intervention into a dispute by a neutral third party, called a mediator, who is acceptable to all participants. The mediator’s job is not to impose a solution, but to help the disputing parties engage in constructive negotiations so that they can agree on a solution.”

“The goal of mediation is a ‘memorandum of agreement’ signed by all parties. This is a written document specifying what will be done by each party to implement the solution to the dispute.”

Mayor Reynolds said that in the city’s view, the service delivery disagreement can be resolved by a couple of methods:

  • Decatur County commissioners could provide a rebate or discounted rate for the city’s future use of county resources like the county landfill and the county jail. (Currently, the City of Bainbridge sends its trash to Campbellton, Fla., and its misdemeanor inmates to the Pelham, Ga., City Jail–both moves were made in an effort to seek out the lowest costs for those services, according to city officials.)
  • According to Reynolds, Decatur County commissioners could “easily set up a special tax district” which would result in property owners located within Bainbridge city limits paying a lower rate on the millage set by county commissioners.

Those ideas go back to city officials’ assertion that property owners within city limits, who pay taxes to Decatur County, pay money for county services that are not provided to citizens within city limits. According to the city’s analysis, each person in Decatur County pays $233.18 per year for county services they don’t receive. Reynolds said that figure is for every resident of Bainbridge, property owner or not, so the per-household figure would be larger.

The following text is taken from the Georgia Department of Community Affairs’ Charting a Course for Cooperation and Collaboration: An Introduction to the Service Delivery Strategy Act for Local Governments:

If a county and its cities cannot reach agreement on the Strategy, the law requires that they attempt to resolve their differences through some method of alternative dispute resolution. Alternative dispute resolution generally refers to either mediation, whereby a neutral third party is hired to help find a solution to a disagreement, or to arbitration, whereby a neutral third party is authorized to evaluate a situation and pick one side’s proposal over another’s.

While the term alternative dispute resolution generally includes both mediation and arbitration, most local government attorneys agree that cities and counties are prohibited by the State Constitution from settling disputes through arbitration. If alternative dispute resolution is unsuccessful, the neutral party is required to prepare a report and provide it to each local government within the county. The report will be considered a public record.

Another alternative is available while sanctions are being imposed or in the event that a local government refuses to review and revise their strategy, if necessary, to address changes in service delivery or revenue distribution arrangements. Where applicable, one of the affected local governments may file a petition in superior court seeking mandatory judiciallysupervised mediation. Under this procedure, the court may rule on the disputed issues and is authorized to hold sanctions in abeyance on one or more of the parties participating in the mediation. The cost of alternative dispute resolution will be shared by the disputing parties on a prorata basis according to population. The county’s share will be based upon the unincorporated population of the county.

How much time should local governments allow for alternative dispute resolution to work?
Depending on the nature of the conflict, it could take anywhere from one meeting to several weeks to resolve a dispute. Hopefully, in most situations, the alternative dispute resolution process will be completed within 30 days.

What is the point of requiring the neutral third party to prepare a report when dispute resolution is unsuccessful?
The hope is that the disputing local governments will have more incentive to work out their differences by knowing that the public will ultimately be made aware of the source and nature of the conflict.

 

Related: Decatur County to City of Bainbridge: we won’t leave you hanging

Related: Read the open records requests sent by the Bainbridge City Council and Decatur County commissioners




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