STATE FUNDING IN PERIL? County, cities must reach agreement on services by Feb. 28
By: Jenna Oden, Ed Pugh, Hunter Riggall and Daniel Evans
Time is running out for Troup County and the cities of LaGrange, West Point and Hogansville to adopt a service delivery strategy (SDS) for the next ten years, and it appears hard lines are being drawn into the sand that could send the four government entities toward mediation.
On Thursday, Hogansville Mayor Bill Stankiewicz and West Point Mayor Steve Tramell sent a letter to the county officially requesting mediation to resolve the differences their cities have with the county.
The SDS is required by the state of Georgia for all 159 counties and outlines the delivery of government services in a cost-effective manner to citizens. The plan covers topics such as utilities, emergency management services, fire protection and law enforcement, among many others.
“The concept of service delivery is to ensure that there is an equitable share of services, and that there aren’t any duplications of services offered in the community … so that people aren’t paying double through taxation for these services,” County Manager Eric Mosley said at the recent Board of Commissioners work session.
The deadline to submit agreements between Troup County and its cities — already extended due to COVID-19 — is Feb. 28.
Penalties for missing the deadline can include loss of state permits and the freezing of state funding.
“[Missing the deadline] would be very significant … anything that comes through the state as a funding mechanism is either put on hold, or you’re not eligible for it,” LaGrange Mayor Jim Thornton said.
Under state law, only the county, the county seat (LaGrange), and 50 percent of other cities must agree. Therefore, if Troup County, LaGrange and either West Point or Hogansville approve the agreement, the agreement will be submitted to the state.
DISAGREEMENT WITH HOGANSVILLE
The disagreement has come between Troup County and the cities of West Point and Hogansville. According to Mosley, the county and LaGrange have essentially agreed to the county’s proposal, though neither the Troup County Commission or LaGrange City Council have officially approved it.
Both the county and the city of Hogansville want to update the fire services agreement between the parties, but there’s been some miscommunication.
Under the expiring SDS, the county currently charges Hogansville $235,192 per year to operate TCFD Station 11, about 40 percent of the cost of that station. Mosley said he believes that is equitable.
Hogansville has asked for that to be dropped to $140,000 per year.
Stankiewicz said he’d originally asked that the county give Hogansville relief so that the city does not have to pay for fire services anymore. However, he said the county sent Hogansville a letter saying that fire services were instead going to go up by $50,000 a year.
Later in the process, Stankiewicz said County Commission Chairman Patrick Crews called him and said the commission had agreed to reduce the amount by $50,000. Stankiewicz said he was under the impression that Crews meant $50,000 less than the $235,192 they are already paying. However, the county meant $50,000 less than their original proposal, meaning the cost of fire services would remain $235,192 per year — the same amount Hogansville currently pays.
“While we understand there are no easy solutions, Troup County would be willing to show some flexibility and keep the contract cost at the FY21 rate of $235,192.00 rather than increasing to the actual cost of $284,092.55 for the next twelve months beginning on July 1st, 2021,” Mosley said in a response to the city of Hogansville. “We would also request based on the Hogansville’s projected growth to revisit the contract every 24 months to ensure the both parties find the terms and cost sharing of the contract are equitable. We believe this offer is more than fair as Hogansville’s Fire Station 11 was strategically placed in the center of Hogansville to offer a higher level of service than that offered to all other citizens living in the unincorporated portions of Troup County. Troup County has had a long-standing relationship with Hogansville and desires to continue to provide this contracted service ultimately providing a great attraction for new businesses and residential growth alike.”
Mosley went on to say that was the county’s final offer.
“Please allow this email to serve as Troup County’s final offering for fire services,” Mosley said.
Mosley noted in his response to Hogansville that the county’s total cost for Station 11 is $568,158.10, which doesn’t include upgrades such as the 2019 Pierce Saber Pumper, 2019 Ford F150 Quick Responsive Vehicle and upgrades made to the physical station. Mosley said the $568,158.10 only accounts for operational costs such as fuel, utilities, personnel, maintenance, training, etc.
“There’s a lot of little areas we could have asked for help with, but we are being more than fair and only asking for some relief on fire services,” Stankiewicz said.
DISAGREEMENT WITH WEST POINT
The city of West Point is asking for four significant changes to the current SDS.
Mayor Steve Tramell said the city wants $100,000 in recreation funding, as well as a separate recreation budget to see where the money is going. Secondly, West Point wants $100,000 for library services, as the city of West Point funds the Hawkes Library and sends funding to the Chambers County Library and Cobb Memorial Archives in Chambers County, Alabama.
“We have to fund out of our own pocket Hawkes [Library], and we send money to the Chambers County and Cobb Archives, so that our citizens can have a library card in Chambers County, if they so choose,” Tramell said.
Third, Tramell said the city wants Kia Parkway to be designated as a countywide project and for countywide funds to be used for paving and maintenance.
“Kia Parkway is not just a road of countywide significance it’s a road of statewide, I mean southeast-wide significance,” he said.
West Point’s final hot button issue within the current SDS negotiation is Local Option Sales Tax (LOST) funding. Currently, West Point and Hogansville receive 5 percent of LOST while LaGrange and Troup County receive 45 percent. West Point is asking for that amount to be increased to 10 percent.
In response, Mosley sent a counteroffer in an email to West Point on Wednesday.
Mosley said the county would allocate an additional $100,000 per year toward the Troup County Parks and Recreation park, programs and personnel budgets in West Point, so it appears the two sides are possibly close to an agreement on that point.
He also said the county would allocate matching funds not to exceed $25,000 a year toward the Hawkes Children’s Library, $75,000 less than West Point asked for. If Hawkes agreed to deed ownership and programmatic oversight through the Harris-Troup Library System, Mosley wrote that Troup County agrees to provide an additional $25,000 per year to total $50,000.
Mosley wrote that the county would allocate funding to manage and fund a chip sealing project for Kia Parkway and agreed to assist West Point with seeking funding through the Georgia Department of Transportation and Georgia Department of Economic Development. However, in the response, the county did not commit to the roadway becoming a countywide project.
Lastly, Mosley wrote that the local option sales tax would remain split as it is now, with LaGrange and Troup County getting 45 percent and Hogansville and West Point getting 5 percent.
As with the Hogansville letter, Mosley said this was Troup County’s “final offer.”
On Thursday, Attorney Alex Dixon, who represents both Hogansville and West Point, sent a letter to Mosley, requesting for mediation for SDS.
“It is clear that the parties are unable to reach an agreement for service delivery strategy,” the letter said. “Therefore, on behalf of the City of Hogansville, Georgia and the City of West Point, Georgia, the undersigned mayors hereby jointly notify you of the referral of the service delivery strategy for Troup County, Georgia and the respective cities to mediation pursuant to O.C.G.A. 36-70-25-1. We look forward to working with the parties toward the selection of a mediator and the scheduling of mediation of this matter as soon as possible.”
Mosley responded Friday, saying that the county was “unaware that there has been any determination by any of the local governing authorities at this point that an SDS cannot be agreed to by Troup County, the city of LaGrange and either or both the City of Hogansville and the City of West Point.”
Mosley went on to say that at this point there is “nothing to mediate” as no city council or commission has taken any action to approve or reject any SDS proposal.
He also asked why the two cities sent a letter together asking for mediation.
“We understand that the City of Hogansville and the City of West Point, despite having distinct and separate constituencies and interests, are being represented by the same paid SDS consultant and Troup County can only assume that by submitting this joint request on joint letterhead transmitted by legal counsel for both municipalities, you are both attempting to communicate that neither Hogansville or West Point will evaluate, consider or approve any SDS without the agreement and consent of the other. If this is your intent and position, then Troup County would respectfully submit that no good faith mediation is possible. Since your joint letter to me was copied to the City of LaGrange, I can tell you that it is my understanding that its Mayor and City Manager concur that mediation is premature at this point and that a good faith mediation cannot be conducted if neither the City or Hogansville or the City of West Point is willing to independently consider and evaluate any proposal and act without the approval of the other.”
In his response, Mosley also asked if further communication should be between Troup County’s legal counsel and the city’s legal counsel.
Although neither the LaGrange City Council or Troup County Commission have voted on it, it sounds as if the city of LaGrange and Troup County have an agreement in place, with a few changes.
The most significant change from the last agreement is that LaGrange would take over caring for more than a dozen parks from the county.
“What we’ve agreed to do is to provide them with the funding that we’re currently allocating toward those parks, plus some additional funding to assist them in the maintenance of those parks,” Mosley said.
Thornton said that move was part of the recommendations that came out of a parks master plan study released last year. Plus, LaGrange residents complained about the county’s stewardship of parks located in the city.
“The perception has been, that we’ve heard from citizens is, that the county does a great job with recreation, but that the county has not been as responsive, on the maintenance side, of the parks and the green spaces,” Thornton said.
If approved, LaGrange would have control over the following parks: Bell Line Park, Calumet Park, Dunson Park, Eastside Park, Easy Street Park, Edgewood Park, Granger Park, Granger Playground, Haralson Street Field, Jackson Street Park, Lafayette Square, Lindsey Street and Union Street.
LaGrange also wants to give up the rights to the Troup Construction and Demolition Landfill and would also stop funding that landfill.
As of Saturday, there are 29 days left for the cities and Troup County to work out an agreement.
If no agreement is reached, it could be significant for all parties.
Mosley said not coming to an agreement would impact county services that are partially funded by the state or receive grants from the state, including Troup Transit, The Active Life centers, the District Attorney’s Office, court services and the Troup County Sheriff’s Office.
Mosley said Friday that he’s still confident that it can be all worked out before the February deadline. He said they’ve been working on an agreement for six months, initially meeting with all the mayors and city managers. Eventually, the city managers began meeting to work on an agreement, and more recently Mosley has been having individual meetings with each city.
Mosley noted that the two largest population centers — unincorporated Troup County and the city of LaGrange — are already in agreement. He also said the county isn’t asking for anything and wants to be good partners with all three city governments.
“That’s the really interesting thing is the county hasn’t asked for a single thing,” Mosley said. “Not a penny. Not a service. Nothing. We have been trying to be as giving and as flexible as we can be.”
In LaGrange, Thornton said losing qualified government status would mean the loss of housing grants, department of transportation grants, natural resources grants for parks and trails, and economic development grants for industrial projects.
“It had been my hope, and quite frankly my expectation, that we would be able to reach an agreement prior to the deadline,” Thornton said. “And I still think that’s very possible, although we are rapidly approaching the deadline … Sometimes in negotiations, you have to get right up to the deadline before you can make progress.”