VALDOSTA — The five municipalities and Lowndes County are yet again at a standstill on a service delivery agreement.

Any progress made during a two-hour February meeting between county and city officials seems to have been lost after weeks of back-and-forth negotiations.

Arguments boil down to who has the law on their side. 

The city contends their charter, the state Supreme Court and the state constitution give it authority to provide services to unincorporated areas, while the county uses Service Delivery Strategy law for its claims.

It seems the cities and county have reached an impasse with little expectation of either side backing down. If the entities fail to reach an agreement, it is likely the fight will again move into the courts.

Every 10 years, Georgia counties and cities are required to forge a service-delivery agreement, which is meant to eliminate duplication of services and competition among local governments. Officials still do not have a state-mandated service delivery agreement. 

During the Feb. 4 meeting, County Commissioner Clay Griner left the meeting with a few principles of cooperation to add to the framework of the existing agreement. The principles included better communication and shorter negotiation times between city and county officials.

The county added the principles to the agreement and sent it to Valdosta City Manager Mark Barber for review.

Barber received the county's changes but said he disagreed with a part stating the cities need to seek county approval to offer services to entities in the unincorporated areas of the county.

"We were not asking for permission," Barber said. "We will, of course, provide a heads up. The Georgia Supreme Court and constitution gives us the power to offer these services."

Barber sent a response to County Manager Joe Pritchard laying out the city's desire for the agreement. In a key point, the cities state "nothing shall prevent the requesting party from moving forward with extraterritorial extension if requested to do so by the property owner and/or agent."

This essentially means even if the county rejects a proposal to extend services into unincorporated land, a city can still do so. Barber said he felt this was made clear to the county during the Feb. 4 meeting.

It was not, according to county officials, and the county opposed it in response.

In a Pritchard letter to Barber, the county said SDS law requires cities and counties to "avoid overlapping and unnecessary competition and duplication of service." 

According to the letter, the removal of the word "approval" would undermine the intent of the SDS law to avoid duplication.

The letter states the existing 2008 SDS agreement includes a procedure for making extraterritorial extensions of water and sewer services, and county officials think this has been working for the last 11 years. 

"I believe this procedure will continue to work well," Pritchard said in the letter. "It says a request for approval shall not be unreasonably withheld. The commissioners have and will work with the cities in the best interests of the entire county. The commissioners want all of Lowndes County to prosper."

Thomas Lynn is a government and education reporter for The Valdosta Daily Times. He can be reached at (229)244-3400 ext. 1256

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