“There is a victim in everything that has been going on since this (LOST) process began, and that victim is the tax payers of the community. Every tax payer deserves better cooperation, better compromise and better time spent working together for the betterment of our community. So, to you as a tax payer, I want to say I am sorry that you have had to endure all of this stuff that has been going on the last couple of months,” said Upson County Commission Chairman Maurice Raines as he opened the Board of Commissioners’ town hall meeting last week.
Roughly 30 citizens were present to hear a presentation by the BOC on the LOST (Local Option Sales Tax) negotiations, which are currently occurring between Upson County and the City of Thomaston and the City of Yatesville, as well as ask any questions they may have to the board.
After apologizing to the crowd, Chairman Raines broached the subject of tax equity studies and open records requests and how they play into the decisions being made about the LOST. He noted that the City of Thomaston notified the county commissioners on October 22, 2010 that they were going to do a tax equity study to make sure there is fairness and equality between the governments when it comes to the percentages that are being shared with the LOST, which have been the same since 1981. Raines continued, saying that the city said their study would be completed within 90 days and now here we are two years later with the study still being unfinished.
Raines noted the City has stated previously their study could not be completed without the documents they requested from the County. However, they did not make an open records request until May 25, 2011, seven months after they originally announced they were doing a tax equity study. When the request was made, the City wanted documents from 1999-2010 including budget reports, payroll registers, contractor reports, and W2’s, of which all addresses and social security numbers had to be marked out. Another request was added on June 24, 2011 for all electronic documents from 1999-2010 as well.
Raines stated that the staff began immediately to gather the information, but that a request of this magnitude was going to take quite some time to fill. While searching for records, former County Clerk Pam Releford, who was in charge of collecting the records, discovered that there were county records located in the old gym on the R.E. Lee campus; which also led to the realization that there was no system to the filing and they could not be sorted through quickly. During this time she was put on bed rest for medical reasons and the rest of the finance and administration staff had to step up. All the while, regular day to day business had to be completed as well.
The City was notified that former County Manager Kyle Hood was to be the main contact for all requests and that their patience was appreciated, but they were also welcome to come and go through the county records themselves. However, Raines stated that neither of those options was considered satisfactory to the City. All requests still came to Raines and even though City Council member Wallace Rhodes offered to come with City Manager Patrick Comiskey to sift through the records, that offer was refused as well.
The county has a retention policy of five years, meaning they only have to keep documents for five years back from the current year. Therefore, Bill Maher posed the question of why didn’t the county just tell the city of the policy and only give those records. Raines answered that by law, all documents have to be given if they have not been destroyed, regardless of the retention policy and they were not going to lie to the City and say they didn’t still have them. He also noted that the county has done their own tax equity study without having to ask for any documents from the city.
Concerned citizen Gary Self asked the board why they would not agree to leave the percentages the same when it comes to the LOST like the City had proposed, but Raines said it wasn’t that cut and dry. The BOC said they would consider leaving the percentages the same if the City would be willing to pay more on service deliveries. He continued saying that if a resolution was signed before negotiations on the service deliveries began, they city could refuse to discuss the matter and there would be nothing the county could do. One example he gave of things that needed to be discussed dealt with the Gilmore Center. The county funds the Gilmore Center $100,000 each year, but the city owns the building and is receiving rent from the center at $600 per month. However, the county pays the insurance on the building even though it is not theirs. Raines noted that the Gilmore Center provides a service to the entire community, which is why the issue of how much the city and county pay for it needs to be evaluated.
The meeting was closed out with the rest of the commissioners pledging to work diligently with the city to come to an agreement.
“I can honestly say we have worked hard and diligently to always try to cooperate,” said Raines. “Change is painful, it hurts. We respect the city, but at the end of the day, we don’t have to fall out because we disagree.”