Is no joint projects agreement harmful?

Larry Stanford Editor

December 17, 2013

Attorneys for the City of Thomaston and Upson County came before Superior Court Judge Stephen Boswell Friday afternoon to argue for and against a temporary injunction filed by Thomaston which would require the county to honor the joint projects agreement (service delivery strategy) signed by the two governments in August of this year. Two months after the agreement was signed off on by Judge Boswell as part of an arbitration process, the Georgia Supreme Court ruled that the arbitration process was unconstitutional because of the separation of powers of the judicial and legislative branches of government. Based on that ruling, the Upson County Board of Commissioners declared the agreement null and void, and the City of Thomaston began legal action to force the county to abide by the agreement.

At the end of the four-hour hearing Friday, Judge Boswell instructed the two sides to draft the judicial orders they would like him to sign off on, and present them plus any final arguments in writing to him by December 18. The judge said he will take their suggested orders into consideration and either sign off on one of them, or write his own order before the end of the year.

During the hearing Friday, Thomaston attorneys Joel Bentley and Robyn Webb called three witnesses to the stand – Thomaston Mayor Pro Tem Doug Head, Upson County Manager Jim Wheeless, and Upson County Commission Chairman Rusty Blackston. Head stated that the joint projects agreement is necessary so that the people of Thomaston – through their elected officials – have a say in how county services are provided to them.

Under cross examination by county attorneys Paschal and Heath English, Head acknowledged that the city and county have been operating without a joint projects agreement since the middle of 2010. But Head went on to say that if the state found out they don’t have a service delivery strategy in place, the state could withhold grants and loans to both the city and county. He also stated that the service delivery strategy is a law, and that he does not like not following the law.

“The state constitution, the law says that there has to be a delivery strategy in place. I don’t take that law lightly, and I don’t like the message we send to people in this city or this county that we just act like the wild west, that we don’t care about the law,” Head said. “I want to obey the law, and the law says that this is the way it’s done, and that’s a great concern to me. And I want to know what I say to my children, to my constituents and the people of the county – it’s important that we follow the law.”

County Manager Jim Wheeless testified that county services are paid for through the county’s general fund, which receives the majority of its funding from property taxes received from residents both in the city and in the unincorporated portions of Upson County. He also stated that as far as he knows, the county plans to continue to fund the services found under the joint projects agreement.

Upson County Commission Chairman Rusty Blackston was the final witness. Blackston stated that after the BOC declared the joint projects agreement null and void due to the Supreme Court decision, the BOC did not go back to the city and ask that the agreement be re-adopted because the BOC felt they were giving up some power to other elected officials.

“We felt we were giving up some of our authority and taxations to another government entity, which is not legal,” Blackston said.

When asked why they felt that way, Blackston replied they did not get all the information they needed at the time the original agreement was signed.

“We did not get full information or explanations we needed on this agreement from our previous attorney,” Blackston stated. “For us to give taxing authority to the City of Thomaston and reduce the millage rate as the taxing authority for the county, and for them to collect those taxes is in turn giving up some of the powers that we were elected for.”

When asked where in the agreement it required the county to reduce its millage, Blackston admitted there was nothing in the agreement, but that after the agreement it was explained to them that Thomaston would pay 37 percent of the taxes into the agreement, and that would take taxes away from the county.

In his closing argument, city attorney Joel Bentley stated that Georgia law says the county cannot provide services to the city without the permission of the city, and that the service delivery agreement provides that permission. However, by refusing to sign the agreement, Bentley said the county is stating that it is okay to violate the law. He went on to say that the city has a vested right to the services provided and a right to have a say in how they are provided. He noted that city residents pay 37 percent of the county budget (based on population).

Bentley went on to state that Judge Boswell was only required through the arbitration process to sign off on the Local Option Sales Tax Agreement (LOST) between the county and the cities of Thomaston and Yatesville, and not on the joint projects agreement between Thomaston and Upson County.

Bentley concluded his argument by stating that while there is no harm to the county in abiding by the agreement, that there is clear danger to both the city and county from the state withholding grants and loans if the agreement is not in place.

Heath English countered in his closing argument that history has shown there has been no harm to the city or county by not having the agreement in place, and that injunctive relief requested by the city is not appropriate.

He went on to contend that the service delivery agreement is unconstitutional because it was included in the arbitration that the Supreme Court ruled illegal.

English stated that service delivery is illegal because it gives inappropriate authority to the city council in providing funding for the services. He added that the only way the county providing services to the city is illegal is if the city says it does not want the services in the city.