VALDOSTA – Lowndes County took a step forward Wednesday toward ending its longstanding Service Delivery Strategy standoff with the City of Valdosta.
The Lowndes County Board of Commissioners held a special called meeting Wednesday morning to consider a new SDS agreement. The agreement was approved unanimously.
Now, the City of Valdosta must review the proposal and Valdosta City Council must put it to a vote; however, the proposal approved by the county was crafted by both city and county representatives.
Past negotiations between the cities and county have not gone well, and a battle over an state-mandated SDS agreement has raged on for three years between Lowndes County and the City of Valdosta. As reported by The Valdosta Daily Times in the fall, more than $860,000 of taxpayer money has been spent on SDS litigation between the city and county.
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 state's Service Delivery Act is aimed at reducing duplication of services and double taxation.
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 disagreement centers around which entity should provide water and sewer utilities to new businesses. The city wants autonomy to provide services to unincorporated areas without the county’s 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.
The new proposal is the result of negotiations and a Dec. 31 meeting between Commissioners Joyce Evans, Clay Griner and Scottie Orenstein and Valdosta City Council members Sonny Vickers and Andy Gibbs, county documents indicate.
"It's all based on trust," Griner said during the meeting. "It's the County Commission trusting the City Council, or whichever municipality it is, to do the right thing. It's the City Council that has to trust the County Commission to do the right things. It's the citizens to trust all of us to do the right thing."
Orenstein said the new verbiage on water and sewage services originated from Gibbs wanting to simplify the wording.
Commissioner Demarcus Marshall commended Gibbs and Vickers for their roles in crafting the new proposal.
"Councilman Vickers has been on the council for a while, and to see him participate in this process — I feel good about it," Marshall said before voting began.
After the county passed the proposal, Griner said the county maintains its same position on water and sewage services, but the new proposal simplifies things.
"(It is) the same thing we always asked for. It's not as complicated as we tried to make it as before," Griner said. "If you read (the proposal), there's no real negotiation process for it. We trust that the city, whichever city it is, and the county will sit down and talk about it and make the right decision for the community."
Since the 2008 agreement, cities had to request permission from the county to provide services to unincorporated areas. Griner said that request standard would change into a collaborative one.
"That's the way it should be," Griner said.
Collaboration and simplification were the two main goals for Gibbs during the most recent negotiations.
Gibbs said background discussions between the cities and the county have been ongoing, but he is pleased to see discussions were open and made headway.
"I'm glad to hear the door's back open, negotiations are back on the table," Gibbs said.
Bill Slaughter, chairman of the county commission, echoed the goodwill regarding the current direction of SDS discussions.
"I have a lot of hope we'll have an opportunity here to put this behind us, and we can move forward from the point of the city/county relationships in terms of SDS," he said.
Slaughter repeated that Valdosta and Lowndes County possess a strong working relationship, but that SDS is a point of contention.
"The one thing that has kind of been a burr under all of our saddles is SDS, and with the efforts of City Council members as well as County Commission members, hopefully we'll be able to get this resolved," Slaughter said.
Gibbs, Griner and Slaughter all mentioned economic development as a driver to get the deal done as well.
Now, the ball is in the city's court, Gibbs said. Valdosta City Council members will discuss the terms of the new proposal and decide whether to alter the proposal or vote to approve it.
"We got to move. My suggestion was to move as quickly as we can," Gibbs said. "Not to prolong this at all ... whatever our next move is."
As he waits for that move, Griner was reinvigorated.
"I'm excited about it," Griner said. "I hope they see the benefit of us sitting down and negotiating when there's an issue.
"We ought to be adult enough to be able to sit down and come up with a solution between whichever two parties it is."
While Service Delivery Strategy is not on the agenda for the regularly scheduled meeting of Valdosta City Council set for Thursday evening, Mayor Scott Matheson told The Times, he expects city leaders to discuss the proposal at some point in the meeting.
Matheson said passing a SDS agreement with the county is a high priority for his new administration.