VALDOSTA – $860,147.90.
Lowndes County and the City of Valdosta paid more than $800,000 in legal fees over a Service Delivery Strategy dispute during the past three years, according to documents obtained through open records requests.
The county and city still do not have an agreement, and taxpayers are paying the bills.
The City of Valdosta has two firms engaged in SDS litigation. From October 2016 to July 2019, the city has paid Smith, Welch, Webb & White, a legal team from south Atlanta, $293,775.07. From July 2016 to Sept. 25, the city has paid city attorney firm Coleman Talley $83,731.41.
Valdosta's two legal teams also represent the cities of Dasher, Hahira, Lake Park and Remerton. Valdosta is fronting the bill for the other four cities for a total of $377,506.48.
The county has paid county attorney firm Elliott, Blackburn & Gooding $482,641.42.
Between the two sides, that total amounts to $860,147.90.
Beginning in 2016, the Service Delivery Strategy Act has been a point of contention between the city and county. The 2008 agreement was flagged by the Georgia Department of Community Affairs after the two parties failed to agree to a revised agreement in 2016.
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 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 disagreement centers around which entity should provide water and sewer utilities to new businesses.
"(The city) just want to be able to go out there and do it without approval from the county," said Bill Slaughter, chairman of the Lowndes County Board of Commissioners.
"That is just unacceptable."
At the moment, talks between the two sides have stalled.
The county has taken DCA to court with one component of the lawsuit arguing that the state agency has overstepped its powers by saying the 2008 agreement is out-of-date. The Georgia Court of Appeals recently ruled the commissioner and the board members of the DCA cannot be taken to court over this matter, confirmed Walter Elliott, attorney for Lowndes County.
The other components of the lawsuit are currently pending as the county waits for the state superior court, Elliott said.
Recently, the county rejected a proposal sent by the city three weeks ago and does not plan to counter at the present time, Slaughter said.
Local officials from the city and county may not agree on the SDS agreement, but both sides believe the fight is worth the costs of litigation so far.
"I think (the legal costs are) certainly worth the effort, especially if it comes out like it should," Valdosta Mayor John Gayle said. "We're fighting for the taxpayers of Valdosta."
“Now, on the issue of is it worth the money that’s being spent, well that’s a tough question because you have to say that in reality I’m very disappointed that both sides have had to spend this much money," Slaughter said. "So, what is that worth to protect those citizens in the unincorporated area? I’m not sure that you can put a value on that."
"No, this isn’t about a cash grab whatsoever," said Mark Barber, Valdosta city manager. "That’s not what these negotiations are about. This is about duplication of services and taxes."
Lowndes County Manager Joe Pritchard said, "The cost that you are referencing from the legal fees spent are a necessary, in my opinion, expenditure that we would all love to avoid if the cities and counties were able to resolve this distribution and the financing of the services in a fair and equitable way."
"To me, (the county losing money from services provided by the city) is a minor issue compared to the city requiring anyone they serve water and sewer that they either annex in the future if they are not contiguous or if they are contiguous, they must annex at that time," Slaughter said.
A major issue between the two sides revolves around annexation. Annexation is the process of residents or property owners living in unincorporated areas being added to the local city's jurisdiction.
The county believes annexing unincorporated areas of Lowndes County is a major threat and having the city provide water and sewer services without county approval would lead to that, according to Slaughter.
"For example, if you go out four parcels from the city limits, then you also obligate the other parcel owners that are still in the unincorporated area that may want to stay in the unincorporated area, you’ve kind of tied their hands as far as who they will be served by because you’ve run the city’s water and sewer out there," Slaughter said.
The city directly opposes the county's argument of services leading to immediate or eventual annexation.
"Annexation and delivery of services are two totally separate things," Barber said.
"SDS and annexation do not go hand in hand, and perhaps if we can get that worked out with a good, clear understanding, that would help us move forward at a more expedient manner," Barber said.
The city argues the disagreement boils down to permission. If a prospective business wants to open in unincorporated Lowndes County and wants city services, the city believes it does not need the permission of the county.
"All I’m asking is that if an industrial customer comes into town and wants to use city water and sewer and have fire protection, then we don’t argue over it and run that customer off," Gayle said.
"We just keep getting pounded and accused of wanting to annex every subdivision and the subdivision’s personal property," Gayle said. "Doesn’t have anything to do with anything we’re arguing about now at all."
Barber said, "I think an economic prospect should have that choice, and if that’s going to get them in town and create higher paying jobs and better jobs and expand the economy of both the City of Valdosta and unincorporated Lowndes County, hey, that’s where we should go."
Neither the county nor city leaders provided any estimates for how much will be spent in legal feels when all is said and done. The $860K calculated from documents obtained by The Valdosta Daily Times reflects the amount spent through September 2019.