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SDS discussions appear to be heading for mediation

Troup County has agreed to go to mediation as all four government entities try to find a solution to the ongoing service delivery strategy dispute, according to information shared at Tuesday morning’s Troup County Commission meeting.

West Point and Hogansville originally asked to go to mediation on Jan. 28 in a letter written to Troup County Manager Eric Mosley.

However, much has changed since that date. Hogansville’s city council agreed to pass the currently proposed SDS agreement on Feb. 16, but Mayor Bill Stankiewicz was only authorized to sign the agreement if all four entities agreed. Stankiewicz then vetoed the proposal, noting that it wasn’t in the best interest of the citizens of Hogansville.

Troup County and LaGrange have since passed the proposed SDS agreement. West Point has not taken an official vote with Mayor Steve Tramell and the city council continuing to ask for mediation. For the SDS agreement to pass, the largest city (LaGrange), the county and half the remaining cities (West Point or Hogansville) must agree.

The SDS is required every 10 years in all 159 counties and is meant to ensure delivery of services to citizens in a cost-efficient and effective manner.

On Friday — just two days before the Feb. 28 deadline for a SDS agreement — all four entities signed an extension of the current SDS that will last through June, but the clock starts again, as they’ve grown no closer to an agreement over the last few weeks. The Department of Community Affairs also requires 30 days to review any agreed upon SDS agreement.

Without a SDS agreement in place by the end of June, sanctions will be implemented that include the loss of state-funded grants. 

“We have preliminarily agreed to allow mediation to go forward, where a mediator will come in and assist us in facilitating a conversation to accommodate all four parties,” Mosley said during Tuesday’s commission meeting. “Ultimately, we were hopeful that the four parties could come to an agreement without a mediator, but I think we felt like at this point that the county was willing to oblige the request of the city of Hogansville and West Point at this point to allow the process.”

County Attorney Jerry Willis the next step is for all four entities to agree to a mediator. From there, a meeting will be set up to discuss the issues preventing a SDS agreement from being signed.

“What will a mediator do?” asked Commissioner Lewis Davis. “You have to help me understand the role of a mediator. If we can’t come to an agreement, can he force us into an agreement?”

Willis said the moderator’s job is to facilitate discussion.

“He uses the arguments that each side may have, he hears them, he tries to facilitate it, and he tries to reconcile the differences,” Willis said. “… The next step, which we don’t want to go to, is going to be in the courts.”

Willis has warned the commission that if the four entities can’t figure out the SDS by themselves, eventually a judge from outside Troup County will be forced to step in.

“If we can’t come together and formulate a service delivery strategy, then some judge is going to make a decision on how we’re to do this,” Willis said. “I implore all of the governments to get together and come together and let’s work this thing out. Surely, we are in a better position to determine what’s in the best interest of the citizens of Troup County with different governmental, elected officials than some judge.”

FIRE SERVICES

On Monday, Troup County officially sent word to Hogansville that it was terminating an intergovernmental agreement between the two parties regarding fire services, pending approval of the SDS.

The county officially voted to terminate the agreement on Thursday at its work session but did not send the notice until Monday. Stankiewicz confirmed Monday that Hogansville had received the notice. 

The intergovernmental agreement requires 90 days notice for termination, so the county chose to provide that notice in case no SDS agreement is reached.

The county’s argument is that it pays $600,000 annually to operate Fire Station 11 in Hogansville and might not be able to afford to provide Hogansville fire services if no agreement is reached. The city of Hogansville currently pays $237,618 annually to the county for fire services, but that amount would drop to $195,000 in the proposed SDS, so the county pays the remaining amount.

The cost of fire services was a sticking point for Hogansville in the SDS discussions, and through negotiations, the county agreed to have the city pay less.

“I’m perplexed that we offered more than what was asked and we are somewhat being held hostage because those two cities can’t come together, or because they want to come together,” said County Commission Chairman Patrick Crews.

The commissioners also discussed how much money the county collects from Hogansville overall.

“What I’m hearing some of the people up there say is that their county property tax pays for fire protection,” Davis said.

Mosley said Hogansville is responsible for $670,000 of the county’s $42 million general fund each year.

“It’s not just fire services. It’s recreation, it’s elections, it’s the tax commissioner, it’s property appraisal, judicial administration, superior court… it goes on and on and on and on,” Mosley said. “Unfortunately, it’s not just fire services and recreation. There are a lot of other things that are out there that may not be as sexy as fire services and police and recreation, but those things still have to be provided.”

Crews made it clear that he didn’t believe what the county is doing is vindictive.

“What we did to Hogansville was not vindictive. We were not trying to jeopardize their citizens safety, insurance rates or anything else that might go wrong,” Crews said. “Procedurally, we have to follow the contract. We made clear last week that we will rescind that order at any time that the SDS contract is signed.”

Both Hogansville and Troup County are looking at options if the SDS isn’t signed in 90 days.

“There is a time and point of no return. We have to make preparations to relocate our fire station, if that’s what it comes to. There’s a point where we have to go get a new station or an existing station ready for all that equipment and other personnel to move over,” Crews said. “We can’t wait until the end of 90 days and go ‘next week we have to pull out.’”

Hogansville City Manager Jonathan Lynn said at Monday night’s city council meeting that the city is preparing for if the county isn’t providing fire services in three months.

He said Thursday afternoon the Georgia Fire Services will be visiting Hogansville on Thursday to review the situation and determine the steps needed for the city to create its own fire department.

He also said Hogansville is looking at entering mutual and automatic aid agreements with surrounding jurisdictions that could serve as a “stopgap” as the city develops its own fire department.

“I can assure everyone here anybody watching, anybody that’s going to read the newspaper that we are not going to sit here and watch your house burn down on day 91,” Lynn said. “There will be something in place to protect our residents for fire services, whether it’s through Troup County, the city of Hogansville, or automatic or mutual aid agreement with somebody else.”

Stankiewicz said Monday that he was “mystified” by the notice, as he didn’t expect the county to terminate the fire services agreement after all four parties agreed to a SDS extension through June.

“I am appalled that elected officials would place some of their own citizens at risk of life and limb,” he said.

Lynn said Monday Hogansville will have a fire marshal staff by April, regardless of the fire services decision.

“It does not have to go through the county fire department regardless of whether they are our fire service provider or not,” Lynn said. “We will have a staff person that will be able to do that.”