After Statesboro City Council last week hired a special law firm for negotiations with the county government over their state-required 10-year Service Delivery Strategy, or SDS, the Bulloch County Board of Commissioners followed suit Tuesday.
While retaining Jarrard & Davis LLP, a law firm that represents other Georgia counties, to deal with the city’s legal team and consultant, Bulloch County officials continued to express a preference for face-to-face talks between the local governments. Noting that the city still had not provided any statement of concerns, county commissioners Chairman Roy Thompson vowed that he will not sign for an extension of negotiations past the June 30 deadline.
“I’m disturbed by all of this … that first of all, we’re put in a position to spend taxpayer money to hire attorneys, and I guess why I’m disturbed about it is, I have had conversation with two councilmen, the mayor and the past city (manager) and I’ve asked them what issues do they have, and as of 6:02 on Tuesday evening, I have not received any issues whatsoever,” Thompson said.
That was the time then on the clock during the commissioners’ special meeting, which began at 5:30 p.m. with the annual budget hearing. After that, County Attorney Jeff Akins had introduced the agenda topic of the “engagement letter” to retain Jarrard & Davis, a firm based in Cumming with 14 lawyers named on its letterhead.
The agreed rates will be $250 an hour for the work of attorneys and $100 an hour for paralegals.
Thompson meant that he had talked about the SDS recently with two Statesboro City Council members, as well as Mayor Jonathan McCollar and now-former City Manager Randy Wetmore.
Bulloch County and Statesboro officials in the past two years worked out agreements for a Special Purpose Local Option Sales Tax renewal, a new Transportation SPLOST and the county’s participation in two city tax allocation districts through direct talks, Thompson observed.
“And here we’ve got 20 days to complete this negotiation or we have to file for an extension, and I think they’ve hired a consultant back in September, and they’ve had all of this time to bring it up and they have not brought it up whatsoever,” he continued.
Wetmore signed a service agreement on Statesboro’s behalf in September with former Savannah City Manager Michael B. Brown’s firm, Brown Pelican Consulting LLC, for “professional services regarding review and assistance with Service Delivery Strategy.” Wetmore retired May 31 as city manager here but was hired this week as city manager for Bridgeport, West Virginia.
Statesboro City Council, during its June 4 meeting, held a closed session to discuss “potential litigation” and upon returning to open session voted 5-0 to retain the Atlanta-area law firm Smith, Welch, Webb & White LLC, and four of its lawyers specifically, as special counsel for “negotiation, mediation and litigation” of the SDS.
“I still don’t understand why we did not meet into a room and do like we did on either one of these other negotiations that we’ve had, meet into a room and work it out,” Thompson said.
The June 30 deadline for the county and the four towns within it to submit a 10-year SDS agreement to the Georgia Department of Community Affairs coincides with the deadline for new comprehensive plans. Statesboro has completed its comprehensive plan for submission, and Brooklet, Portal and Register officials have worked with the county on coordinated plans.
But the SDS, which states which local governments provide each of a long list of services and how these are funded, is also required for the county and cities to remain eligible for state grants. Failure to submit an agreement could affect the Bulloch County senior citizens center and Statesboro’s Creek on the Blue Mile project, among other things, Thompson noted.
Although reviewed for revisions every five years and reauthorized after 10, Bulloch County’s SDS has remained largely the same since it was first required under state law 20 years ago.
Under that existing agreement, the county took over funding for the recreation department, library and airport, Commissioner Anthony Simmons noted Tuesday.
“I just don’t understand what more do they want,” he said.
Akins, the county’s staff attorney, recommended retaining Jarrard & Davis.
“This is a law firm that had a lot of experience in representing different counties around the state in service delivery strategy negotiations, and more specifically, they’ve represented a number of counties where cities have employed the particular consultant and law firm that the city of Statesboro has, for whatever reason, felt it necessary to engage,” Akins said.
Hopes to de-escalate
County Manager Tom Couch said he was “hopeful there might be an opportunity to have things de-escalate,” but concurred that it was wise to “be somewhat in a defensive posture” at this point.
Commissioners voted 6-0 to retain the law firm, on a motion from Commissioner Ray Mosley seconded by Simmons. But first, Thompson made what he called “sort of a bold statement.”
“I will not sign an extension, and I’m in hopes that they can resolve this,” he said. “Let me back up. I will not sign it, but if someone else serving on the commission board so wants to sign the extension, then I guess that would be fine with me. But by my saying I will not sign it, I’m also stating I expect this to be resolved by June 30.”
After the meeting, Thompson said he would rather resign than personally sign an extension and that he didn’t know if it would be possible for the vice chairman, county attorney or county manager to sign instead.
Mayor McCollar had called Thompson the morning of June 4 and invited him, county staff members and perhaps one other commissioner to meet with the mayor, city staff members and Brown. But Thompson declined, and said Tuesday he believes the elected officials should have a public, not a private, discussion.
McCollar spoke to Thompson again Wednesday morning. The city wants to file for an extension to Oct. 31 from the state and will have a resolution to that effect on next Tuesday’s council agenda, McCollar said in a phone interview.
“At this point right now, I hope that we’re able to come to an agreement where we can get the extension and get the service delivery worked out between the county and the city, but as to whether the county wants to sign the extension, that’s totally at their discretion,” McCollar said.
In general, the city’s position is that $500,000 to $1 million a year that Statesboro taxpayers pay in county taxes goes to fund services in the county’s rural area.
“So what this breaks downs to is about 36 cents for every $1 that is spent in an unincorporated area is coming from the city’s tax base,” McCollar said. “And so if you multiply that out over the course of 10 years, that’s a range of $5 million to $10 million that could be used inside of the city to provide better services for the city.”
An example concern, he said, is the county’s provision of recreation parks within Statesboro’s “main city corridor” including the Fair Road, Luetta Moore and Grady Street parks. All of these could use upgrades, McCollar said. Mill Creek Regional Park is on the edge of Statesboro, but he said it “is not a walking park for those that live in the heart of the city.”
Herald reporter Al Hackle may be reached at (912) 489-9458.