VALDOSTA — Service Delivery Strategy headed back to court this week.
The Georgia Supreme Court heard oral arguments Wednesday for one element of the Lowndes County's lawsuit over SDS – a disagreement that has stretched into years between Lowndes County and Valdosta as well as other Lowndes municipalities on shared services.
The portion of the lawsuit surrounds whether the Georgia Department of Community Affairs former commissioner Camila Knowles and past board members are immune from being sued after rending the county ineligible for state financial assistance, grants, loans or permits until the DCA could verify that Lowndes County and surrounding cities were in compliance with the Service Delivery Act Nov. 1, 2016.
The SDS fight has raged for the past four years between the county and municipalities and centers around duplication of services provided by local governments.
Under state law, cities and counties must negotiate a new service delivery agreement every 10 years, spelling out which services the governments will provide and how they will be funded. The SDS agreements are aimed at reducing duplication of services.
Without such an agreement, the county, the City of Valdosta and the other cities in the county become ineligible for state grants and other funding and permits.
The key disagreement centers on which entity should provide water and sewer utilities to new businesses. The city wants autonomy to provide services to unincorporated areas without county approval, and the county believes this would result in residents or property owners living in unincorporated areas being added to the local city's jurisdiction, according to past reporting in The Valdosta Daily Times.
Judges for local and appellate courts have previously ruled against the county in this matter but Lowndes County appealed to the highest court in the state.
County leaders feel their position is strong and the appeal will be a fruitful one.
“We feel very strongly that under the law the DCA commissioner and board members are not immune from the county’s lawsuit that they act unlawfully," said Walter Elliott, Lowndes County attorney. "And that the Supreme Court should rule in that the DCA commissioner and board members are not immune.“
In defense of the DCA board members, the Georgia Attorney General's office argues "it is well settled that a lawsuit cannot be maintained without its statutory consent," according to the summaries of facts and issues of the case.
“This general rule cannot be evaded by making an action nominally against the servants or agents of a State, when the real claim is against the State itself and it is the party vitally interested,” the attorney general's office said.
As for the rest of the county SDS lawsuit, it remains in local trial court, Elliott said.