After first retaining a consultant and more recently a specialized law firm for Service Delivery Strategy negotiations with the county government, Statesboro City Council voted 4-1 Tuesday to have the mayor sign the offered “status quo” 10-year agreement.
This follows the Bulloch County Board of Commissioners’ vote last week to retain the law firm Jarrard & Davis to contend with the city’s legal team from Smith, Welch, Webb & White. It also follows county Chairman Roy Thompson’s vow not to sign the city’s request for an extension past the June 30 deadline.
At Tuesday evening’s regular City Council meeting, the actual agenda item would have authorized Mayor Jonathan McCollar to sign a form asking the Georgia Department of Community Affairs for an extension to Oct. 31. But District 5 City Councilman Derek Duke offered a statement that signaled a change of course.
“I now feel I voted in error to retain lawyers to mediate and get an extension because I would like to sign the current agreement – as, well, that has to be done by the mayor – and accept that Service Delivery Strategy and move ahead,” Duke said.
He had begun by saying that council members were “a little bit surprised” in the previous meeting to hear from a consultant on this issue. Michael B. Brown, the former Savannah city manager who now heads the firm Brown Pelican Consulting LLC, was enlisted to advise Statesboro officials under a contract signed in September by then City Manager Randy Wetmore.
But Duke said some of the council members, himself included, had not known Brown was retained by the city until he came to talk to them. Duke referred to Brown as taking part in a push by the Georgia Municipal Association to advise cities in SDS negotiations and make sure funding agreements are fair and equitable. Brown had “presented some ratios and suggested some things that need adjustment,” Duke said.
But Duke expressed alarm over the potential costs of a legal battle.
Neighboring Candler County and the city of Metter had been “in high-profile dispute” over their Service Delivery Strategy, Duke noted. He also handed other council members copies of the Georgia law mandating that counties have SDS agreements with the cities within them. Among the legal reasons to revisit an agreement, “whenever the county and affected municipalities agree to revise the strategy” was in bold type.
“If we discover … that there are inequities in the Service Delivery Strategy, there is a mechanism for adjusting it without doing it as Metter did and spending over $300,000 of the taxpayers’ city money on attorney fees and their council members expressing to me extreme dissatisfaction with the personal effect that that battle cost in friendships and working together,” Duke said.
Candler County’s government also spent “well over $100,000,” he said.
Metter Mayor Ed Boyd, phoned Wednesday by the Statesboro Herald, said that the expense to his city was actually about $200,000 and that Candler County’s costs were a little over $100,000. The four-year struggle was worth it because “it created tax fairness in a lot of areas where there wasn’t any,” Boyd said. He acknowledged that some Metter council members have a different opinion.
Motion off and on
During the Statesboro City Council meeting, Duke at first offered a motion to have McCollar sign the SDS document offered by the Bulloch County commissioners.
This document, which County Manager Tom Couch described as a “status quo” agreement in a mid-April email to Statesboro, Brooklet Portal and Register officials, retains substantial elements of the first SDS created here 20 years ago. Under that agreement, the county took over funding the airport, library and recreation department.
As required under state law, the plan was renewed 10 years ago and updated five years ago. The version proposed by the county this year trims the previous 112 pages down to 45 pages, but Couch said this was accomplished by combining service categories and eliminating redundancies and references to agencies that are not locally funded. He referred to it Wednesday as “the updated agreement.”
District 1 Councilman Phil Boyum said he had received this document officially only this week, and asked staff members who said they had received it in mid-May. Meanwhile, after Wetmore’s May 31 retirement, Charles Penny is contracted to arrive as the new city manager July 1.
While transitioning city managers, Boyum said, the city would only be asking for a four-month extension to look over a 10-year, multimillion-dollar agreement.
“I think we owe it to our citizens to take the due diligence and look through the document and to have our consultant go through it,” Boyum said. “We don’t have to get into a battle. We can sit down. But refusing to mediate or give us an extension does not seem very collaborative or cooperative.”
Georgia’s SDS Law is meant to reduce duplication of services and prevent or compensate for city property owners’ taxes going to support services just for rural residents, or vice versa.
McCollar reported that Brown had brought to city officials’ attention that “there may be anywhere between $500,000 and $1 million” a year in Statesboro taxpayers’ money misdirected in this way.
“If you multiply that out through the extension of this entire contract, we’re looking at about five to 10 million dollars, and to be quite candid with you, Statesboro, when we’re talking about those kinds of numbers I think that the cost of bringing in experts that are going to know the right questions to ask in this particular situation is the right thing to do,” McCollar said.
At one point, Duke said he was amending his motion to halt payment of any outside attorneys on the matter. But after other council members objected to this approach, he withdrew his original motion along with the amendment.
Boyum then made a motion to approve the resolution seeking the four-month deadline extension. But this motion died for lack of a second. Duke then moved, again, to authorize McCollar to sign the SDS agreement with the county instead.
District 3 Councilman Jeff Yawn seconded that motion. Boyum voiced the one “nay.”
Duke and Yawn both said they had talked with some county commissioners, who promised to negotiate after the agreement is signed if the city identifies particular issues.
“They were will to work with us on any inequities that we find,” Yawn said.
After commenting that he knows of no business owners who would sign first “and then want to work out the variances in the contract after they have signed it,” McCollar said he was “very concerned” about signing the agreement without further review and expert guidance. He said he was going to have to think really hard about it.
“It’s a 4-to-1 vote, and I’ll sign when I get around to it,” he said a little later.
Thompson had sent McCollar and Statesboro’s council members a letter, with Monday’s date, mentioning past cooperation before noting that the county’s legal team had reviewed the proposed agreement.
“Our attorneys have advised us that it is equitable and compliant with the law. And since you have not identified even a single issue with the proposed draft, we decline to sign an extension at this point…,” one passage stated.
“Naturally, we’re pleased with the City Council’s decision to sign the updated agreement,” Couch said Wednesday. “We look forward to continuing a positive relationship that benefits all of the taxpayers in the community.”
The county commissioners had approved the SDS with a 6-0 vote Tuesday morning, and county officials predicted approval by Brooklet, Portal and Register.
Herald reporter Al Hackle may be reached at (912) 489-9458.