Decatur County hires attorney and consultant for service delivery negotiations

Attorney Tony Rowell of Hall, Booth, Smith and Slover
Attorney Tony Rowell of Hall, Booth, Smith and Slover
Attorney Tony Rowell of Hall, Booth, Smith and Slover

At a special called meeting on Thursday night, Decatur County commissioners unanimously voted to hire its own attorney and consultant with expertise in the area of service delivery agreements.

County Administrator Gary Breedlove said earlier on Thursday that county officials need their own attorney and consultant to help them respond to a lawsuit filed by the City of Bainbridge in Decatur County Superior Court. In the lawsuit, the City of Bainbridge petitions for a judge to appoint a mediator to preside over mandatory service delivery negotiations between the two parties in the near future.

County commissioners voted to retain the services of Attorney Tony Rowell of Douglas, Ga., and also voted to hire consultant Harrison Tillman Jr. of Valdosta, Ga.

Rowell is the managing partner of the Tifton office of Hall, Booth, Smith and Slover, a large legal firm that has 12 branches across the Southeast, including nine in Georgia. According to Rowell’s biography on the firm’s website, Rowell serves as the the County Attorney for Coffee County, Tift County, Ware County, and Worth County. He lists governmental liability as one of his areas of expertise.

Harrison Tillman Jr.’s biography from the website of the firm Tillman and Tillman says he focuses almost exclusively on “governmental audit services.”

On Thursday afternoon, before commissioners’ meeting, Breedlove said he believed county commissioners felt the need to hire an attorney with specialized expertise in the area of service delivery. Breedlove said Decatur County Attorney Brown Moseley, who is a former district attorney, handles a broad range of legal matters for the county, but because the City of Bainbridge has hired its own attorneys with specialized experience, Decatur County also needed one to respond to the lawsuit. (As an aside, Brown Moseley is an attorney of counsel with the firm of Hall, Booth, Smith and Slover’s Albany, GA, office.)

Breedlove acknowledged the county has “a lot of catching up to do” from a legal perspective, as in the county administrator’s view, the City of Bainbridge has been working toward legal action since 2012, when the most recent Local Option Sales Tax negotiations were essentially deadlocked.

Proceeds from the Local Option Sales Tax (LOST) are shared by six local governments: Decatur County, Memorial Hospital, and the cities of Bainbridge, Brinson, Climax and Attapulgus. (The City of Bainbridge and Decatur County take the lion’s share of the proceeds).

“The City of Bainbridge wanted two more percent of LOST; Decatur County was seeking two additional percent [from the previous agreement], so we were actually four percentage points apart,” Breedlove said.

In November 2013, the City of Bainbridge sent Decatur County a 16-page open records request seeking numerous documents related to county government operations. Breedlove said county employees spent hundreds of man hours to respond to the open records request; the county filled boxes with 6,000 pages of documents in order to comply with the request, Breedlove said.

“When we had finished compiling our response, we called over to City Hall and asked them how they wanted us to deliver the boxes,” the county administrator said. “We were expecting to drop off the boxes at City Hall, but they told us to ship the documents to Buddy Welch’s office in McDonough.” (Buddy Welch is the main consulting attorney for the City of Bainbridge on service delivery issues).

On August 19, 2014, Welch delivered proposed service delivery agreements in a binder to the Decatur County Administration Office. The binder was accompanied by a letter requesting county officials suggest names for potential mediators and provide three possible dates for negotiation meetings to take place. To date, Decatur County has not formally responded to those requests, according to Bainbridge Mayor Edward Reynolds.

Last Friday afternoon, Welch’s office e-mailed the lawsuit to Bainbridge attorney David Kendrick (who is also consulting with the city on service delivery and LOST), and the lawsuit was filed in Decatur County Superior Court.

Mayor Reynolds has previously said the mass of documentation requested from Decatur County was needed so that Bainbridge officials could calculate how much each county government service costs property tax payers. The City of Bainbridge’s analysis has concluded that there is large tax inequity for City of Bainbridge property owners who also pay taxes to Decatur County Commissioners; in Mayor Reynolds’ words, each City of Bainbridge taxpayer pays hundreds of dollars per year for county services they don’t directly benefit from.

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