ATLANTA – A joint legislative study committee launched an effort Monday to look for ways to help Georgia cities and counties divvy up the services they provide to local residents.
Under a law the General Assembly passed in 1997, cities and counties are authorized to negotiate service delivery agreements that determine how they will provide services including police and fire protection, road construction, water and sewer systems, and garbage collection.
“For the most part, the negotiation process works well,” Jim Thornton, director of governmental affairs for the Georgia Municipal Association (GMA), which represents city governments, told members of the Joint Study Committee on Service Delivery Strategy. “[But] there are points of conflict that lead to litigation.”
“[Disputes] become very protracted, very nasty, and very expensive,” added Larry Ramsey, general counsel for the Association County Commissioners of Georgia (ACCG).
Rusi Patel, general counsel for the GMA, said disputes between cities and counties over service delivery often involve claims of “double taxation” by city residents who pay taxes both to their city governments for city services and to the counties where they live for services that go only to residents in unincorporated portions of their county.
Thornton said an inefficient duplication of services can occur when cities and counties fail to hash out service delivery agreements, resulting in both governments providing the same services in the same areas.
“What we lack right now is a reasonable dispute resolution process as an alternative to litigation,” he said.
State Sen. Frank Ginn, R-Danielsville, one of the study committee’s co-chairmen, said the committee is looking for a way to help steer that process.
Former Georgia Attorney General Sam Olens, also former chairman of the Cobb County Commission, warned that time is of the essence considering a service delivery dispute between Barrow County and the city of Winder the Georgia Supreme Court is due to take up next month.
Olens encouraged both sides in the case to resolve their differences before the court issues a ruling. Otherwise, he said, Georgia cities and counties may end up with a court decision that would apply statewide, causing local governments to “arch their backs.”
“One-size-fits-all language in service delivery agreements is generally not good policy,” Olens said.
Clint Mueller, director of governmental affairs for the ACCG, said his organization and the GMA have assembled a committee to develop recommendations for the General Assembly.
“Under current law, a lot of these disputes end up in court and that gets very costly,” he said. “We’re trying to find solutions to keep people out of court.”
The study committee is expected to hold at least two additional hearings this fall before delivering its findings to the full legislature.