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City heads toward legal petition against county

Months of not-in-the-open executive sessions for “potential litigation” for the City of Sylvania and Screven County Commission came more to light Tuesday morning when the county attorney said changes in how fire and waste services will be collected will be made because of possible legal actions by the city against the county

Executive sessions by law are allowed to be conducted away from the public for reasons of “personnel,” real estate,” or “potential litigation.” Over the last 11 months, some if not all of the “potential litigation” discussions behind closed doors may have involved litigation pitting the city versus the county.

County attorney Hubert Reeves explained two resolutions to the commissioners during the board’s regular monthly meeting. The Special Service District for Solid Waste and Special Service District for Fire Protection for compliance with the Service Delivery Strategy. Both districts have been created because of meetings and letters with the city.

“This is a big change from the way things have been done in the past, “Reeves told the commissioners. “The city has sent some very threating correspondence even though it is something they agreed upon.”

The current county intergovernmental service delivery strategy agreement does not end until 2019. Reeves told the commissioners the creation of the districts was a longer process because other governments have not made such a district – meaning there is no “template” guidelines.

The commissioners unanimously agreed Tuesday to proceed with the code amendment for the special service district.

Commissioner J.C. Warren said, “I want to be fair with city.”

Reeves said because of the city’s request on the county a change needed to be made.

“You can’t govern what other people do, but you can govern what you do,” Reeves said.

Through an open records request by the Sylvania Telephone, Screven County Manager Rick Jordan provided the newspaper with a written letter dated Dec. 27, 2017, from Mayor Preston Dees to Commission Chairman stating that if the county is not more cooperative with the city the next step will be taken.

“January 31, 2018, will be nearly eleven months since the City reached out in a cooperative effort with the County, so unless there is a much more cooperative effort by the County, we will move forward with the legal petition,” Dees wrote. “We hope that your thoughtful consideration of your responsibilities and of our efforts to cooperate with the County will lead you to immediately resume negotiations in the month of January as requested.”

The letter was cc’d to members of the Sylvania City Council, City Attorney Hugh Hunter and SDS Consultants, LLC. The Telephone has learned that SDS has been working with the city on its written correspondence and face-to-face discussions with commissioners.

“I think the letter speaks for itself,” Sylvania City Manager Stacy Mathis told the Telephone Wednesday. “The city has been trying to have continued discussions with the county concerning our Service Delivery Agreements. If these discussions fail to move forward, a legal petition can be filed to start a formal process in order to bring resolution to any unresolved issues. The city remains willing to negotiate with the county.”

Within the letter, the city accuses the county of using city funds for non-incorporated areas in Screven County. The new special service districts would allow cities within the county the option of entering into an intergovernmental agreement with the county or not entering for solid waste and/or fire protection.

The city also wants to revisit the per diem fee on city inmates housed in the county jail and remove city’s the E-911 dispatch fee.

Sylvania has its own fire department, but currently uses the county landfill for its waste. A Screven County Service Delivery Analysis conducted by the county shows that 386 tons is disposed of by the county a month or 67.13 percent compared to 189 tons of 32.87 percent.

The city and county have a somewhat turbulent past when it comes to fire protection. In 2015, the city and county fire departments merged only to split back to their separated departments after only five months as one entity.

Concerned with the possibility of losing disgruntled volunteer firefighters that would put residents’ safety in question and risk a change in a quality Insurance Service Office or ISO rating, the county commissioners voted to dissolve the merger in December 2015.

Under the new perimeters of the special service districts that were introduced by Reeves, the city would have to pay the county for its solid waste service or find another company to handle the waste. That would be the same for the county’s other towns Hiltonia, Newington, Oliver and Rocky Ford.

Based on if the cities wish to be in the service district or not, the county then may establish separate millage rates for fire and solid waste. The commissioners also may opt for putting fees on the services instead of millage.

To provide the commissioners with more information about the special service districts, a called meeting will be held in the county courthouse commission meeting room at 9 a.m. Friday, Jan. 12. The meeting is open to the public.

County officials do not expect to have the new service districts in place before the city’s announced Jan. 31 deadline.

In the letter from Dees, it said he and the city council members met with Boyd and Commissioner Roland Stubbs on March 16, 2017. The city’s consultants were present for this meeting to discuss a revision of service delivery strategy agreement. This meeting was not open to the public.

The letter reads that the city “did not attempt to coerce” action by the county. That phrase is used multiple times in the three-page letter to Boyd.

Dees writes that the city attempted multiple times to contact the county about the potential agreement revision. The letter says the county did not reply.

Dees wrote the city met with county officials on Oct. 10, 2017, along with the county’s consultant. This meeting was not open to the public. Dees said the county requested time to review information with the commissioners and the consultant and the city agreed.

The Sylvania mayor also wrote that the county did not provide a written response to the city until Dec. 6, 2017.

“In your response, there is a disregard for the many hours of effort the City of Sylvania has invested in preparing for negotiations,” Dees wrote. “It is this disregard of professional support and mutual cooperation that is costing our citizens, not the use of professional assistance, to ensure we prepare, together, a service delivery agreement that is responsive, effective and compliant.”

Dees wrote the city provided the county with “several dates for continued negotiation and cooperation.”

“We have provided the County with a list of services that the County provides primarily for the unincorporated residents and property owners,” Dees wrote. “If you insist on omitting the County seat and other municipal governments that provide services within the County from jointly discussing and preparing a more responsive agreement, then the City of Sylvania will move forward with petitioning the court, as is our privilege.”

Dees said the city intends to file the petition before the superior court on or before Jan. 31 unless the county complies with the follow:

n Resume negotiation to jointly prepare a more effective, responsive and compliant service delivery strategy agreement.

n Recommended adjusted county-wide millage rate that reflects property taxes collected for services delineated as county-wide service in the stipulation agreement as provided by the city.

n Recommended special services district millage assessment for funder of services delineated in the stipulation agreement as primarily for the unincorporated area.

n Agreement to house all inmates of the county and the city without a per diem fee, except for city inmates jailed for violation of a city ordinance.

n Removal of the E-911 dispatch fee currently charged to the city, as E-911 dispatch is a county-wide service.

n Any jointly funded services and services provided primarily for the unincorporated areas must be restricted from using the county’s general fund revenues to include general fund property tax collections.

“There are obviously other important components of an effective, responsive, and compliant service delivery agreement that will need to be included, but unless the above items are included in the recommended revise agreement, we will move forward with our legal privilege of filing a petition for judicial resolve,” Dees wrote. “It has been nine months since our initial contact with the County requesting to reopen negotiations as required by the statute. Asking the City to be patient while the board continues to disregard our nine months of effort to provide and coordinate meaningful negotiation is not acceptable. If the County will meaningfully address our concerns in the documents provided in March, August and October, we will delay filing the petition. We would expect the County to meet with the City and our consultants along with other interested municipalities two times before Jan. 31, 2018.”