Statesboro City Council this week retained four attorneys and their Atlanta-area law firm as the city’s special counsel for negotiations with the Bulloch County government toward a required 10-year service delivery strategy agreement.
Georgia’s Service Delivery Strategy Law mandates that counties and the cities within them reach agreement on how to provide and pay for public services. One frequent source of contention is the fact that city property owners also pay county taxes while rural property owners do not pay city property taxes.
“Service delivery is really about how do you pay for unincorporated services,” said Michael B. Brown, a Savannah-based consultant to the city of Statesboro. “They have to pay their own way. That's what it's about. Across the state, that's what these plans are for."
Last month in an email to county and city officials, Randy Wetmore, then Statesboro’s city manager, asserted that “hundreds of thousands, if not millions of dollars” of city residents’ taxes will go to pay for services in unincorporated Bulloch County unless changes are made.
Since September, the city has retained Brown, the former Savannah city manager who now heads a firm called Brown Pelican Consulting, for guidance on this topic. Brown, who is not an attorney, was in the room for a closed-door session that formed roughly the second hour of Tuesday morning’s otherwise open Statesboro City Council meeting.
Returning to open session, council members voted 5-0 to approve a resolution authorizing four attorneys with the law firm Smith, Welch, Webb & White LLC as special counsel “in the preparation, negotiation, mediation and litigation regarding the SDS” (service delivery strategy).
None of the attorneys named in the resolution were present at Tuesday’s meeting. They are Andrew J. “Andy” Welch III (not to be confused with a Bulloch County staff member of similar name), Warren M. Tillery, Brandon Palmer and Frank Gaither. The resolution states that these four “and” the firm itself are retained as special counsel.
The City Council agenda, as usual, had listed multiple possible reasons for a closed session available as exceptions in the Georgia Open Meetings Act. After the meeting, Statesboro City Attorney Cain Smith said the reason for this one had been “potential litigation” but emphasized that this was “potential” only.
“Nothing on Tuesday authorized any sort of lawsuit against anyone, nor are we anticipating or wanting a lawsuit,” Smith said Thursday. “It’s just that this is an area of the law that gets visited every 10 years by us, and also the deadline is June 30, which happens to be the day before our new city manager comes in, so the timing was just bad on that. … We just need expert representation because of the stakes involved here, and it’s for 10 years.”
Wetmore retired as Statesboro’s city manager May 31. Jason Boyles, previously also one of two interim assistant city managers under Wetmore, is interim city manager for June, while Charles W. Penny is contracted to start as the new city manager July 1.
June 30 is the official deadline to submit a service delivery strategy to the Georgia Department of Community Affairs. But an extension of up to 120 days is possible, and Statesboro officials have said they plan to seek one.
At this point, the Bulloch County Board of Commissioners has hired no consultant or law firm for the negotiations.
“I don’t know what our response, yet, is going to be; however, personally, I feel like a discussion without proxies would be more productive and less costly,” Bulloch County Manager Tom Couch said Thursday.
Some other area cities have employed consultants and attorneys for negotiations with their counties, and he doesn’t know how productive it has been for them, he said.
“But I do know that it’s very costly,” Couch said. “It can be tens, if not up to hundreds of thousands of dollars depending upon how far the process goes with these proxies. I don’t know why we’re not just sitting down at a table and having a rational and diligent discussion about what the issues are. We don’t know what the issues are, because we just haven’t had that kind of formative response.”
Bulloch County’s current service delivery agreement with the cities of Statesboro, Brooklet, Portal and Register lists 34 services, from airport operations through fire protection, jails and law enforcement to zoning.
‘Status quo’ offer
In mid-April, Couch sent the mayors of all four towns a letter suggesting “a status quo Service Delivery Strategy document,” in other words a mostly unchanged one.
He noted that “since the initial Service Delivery Strategy was first authored in 1999, there have been very few changes with exception to those pertaining to the intergovernmental agreement for the Statesboro Fire District, or water and sewer service delivery boundaries reflected by updated maps.”
In a May 17 email to Couch, with copies to other Statesboro and Bulloch County officials, Wetmore indicated that the city of Statesboro was not prepared to accept something like a renewal of the existing agreement.
“The city taxpayers should not be subsidizing county services in the unincorporated areas,” Wetmore wrote. “If a status quo agreement is reached the taxpayers of Statesboro would be stuck paying hundred(s) of thousands, if not millions, of dollars for services they should not be paying over the 10 year term of the agreement.”
In the same email he stated, “There will be a need for an extension to be able to get us through the process.”
Couch replied asking for a summary of the city’s concerns, but said the next message was when Smith sent County Attorney Jeff Akins a copy of Tuesday’s resolution.
Costs of experts
A service agreement Wetmore signed on the city’s behalf in September promises Brown’s consulting firm fees of $125 an hour. The city has now agreed to pay the law firm Smith, Welch, Webb & White, whose first-listed office is in McDonough, hourly rates of $300 for the services of Welch, $250 for Tillery, $225 for Palmer and Gaither, $200 for any other associate attorneys and $105 for the work of a paralegal or secretary, plus a 5 percent administrative fee for monthly billing.
Statesboro officials sensed some potential “red flags” in the service delivery negotiation process and want to preserve progress the city has made with the county, Mayor Jonathan McCollar said Friday
But retaining specialists does not rule out direct discussions between the city and county officials, he said.
“As a matter of fact, that’s what the intention is, but I think that to sit down and begin this conversation without having professionals that are associated with this matter as a part of this conversation would do a disservice to both parties,” McCollar said. “And ultimately what we are looking for is to make sure that not just the city but the county as well are in the best position to provide services to the people that we represent and work for.”
Herald reporter Al Hackle may be reached at (912) 489-9458.