DALTON, Ga. — The City of Dalton has filed a lawsuit against Whitfield County and the cities of Cohutta, Tunnel Hill and Varnell in Whitfield County Superior Court to resolve an on-going dispute over the service delivery agreement among their various governments.
The petition filed Tuesday seeks mandatory mediation of the agreement but also says that if the groups fail to reach an agreement during the mediation, "Dalton will petition the court to resolve all remaining items in dispute."
Board of Commissioners Chairman Lynn Laughter said she wasn't surprised the city filed the lawsuit after council members told her last week they would.
"We had a meeting last Monday, another commissioner and I and (Dalton Mayor Dennis Mock) and another City Council member, and asked them to at least sign an extension of the service delivery agreement while we negotiated," she said. "Then we had another meeting Friday (the day after the agreement expired) and asked why they didn't sign an extension, and they said their lawyer told them not to."
Mock did not immediately return a telephone message Thursday afternoon.
Andy Welch, the McDonough-based lawyer who is the city's special counsel in the service delivery talks, filed the motion. He did not immediately return a telephone message left at his office Thursday afternoon.
The state service delivery law calls for a judge from outside the jurisdiction to president over service delivery cases. County Administrator Mark Gibson said Thursday evening that Conasauga Judicial Circuit Superior Court Administrator Brad Butler had told him earlier that three of the four Superior Court judges in the circuit, which includes Whitfield and Murray counties, had signed letters recusing themselves from the case. Judge Cindy Morris is out of town this week but is expected to sign a recusal letter when she returns Monday. Those letters will then be sent to the Lookout Mountain Judicial Circuit — which includes Catoosa, Chattooga, Dade and Walker counties — which will assign a judge to the case.
State law requires cities and counties to negotiate a new service delivery agreement every 10 years, spelling out which services the governments will provide and how they will be funded. The agreements are aimed at reducing duplication of services. The Whitfield County service delivery agreement — which is actually 39 separate agreements between the cities and the county, covering everything from ambulance service to historic preservation to zoning — was signed by the county and the smaller cities but not by the city of Dalton. It expired Oct. 31, making Whitfield County, Dalton, Cohutta, Tunnel Hill and Varnell ineligible for state grants and other funding and for state-issued permits.
The law gives a judge the ability to set aside those penalties during mandatory mediation and other litigation. Whitfield County Attorney Robert Smalley said he is working with the city's legal representatives to draft a petition to the court asking the judge to set aside those penalties and allow the county and all of the cities to continue to receive state funding. He said they will submit that petition soon.
The cities and the county took part almost eight hours of voluntary mediation on Oct. 17 at Dalton State College's James Brown Center without a deal on a service delivery agreement.
Smalley said that mandatory mediation would be similar and the mediator would not have the ability to impose and agreement.
But one difference might be the amount of time the mediation will take.
Citing state law, the city of Dalton's petition says the judge must appoint a mediator within 30 days of the city filing its petition and the mediation must be completed within 60 days of a mediator being appointed.
It also says the majority of the members of the Board of Commissioners and each City Council must attend the first mediation session. It also says that if the different parties cannot agree on how mediation should proceed, a majority of each elected body must come to each mediation session until they can agree on a process.
Varnell Mayor Tom Dickson said that requirement is concerning.
"I had not heard that before, so it's hard to give any official reaction," he said. "Obviously, we will do what we will have to do. Will it present a hardship for some of our council members? I expect it will."
On Oct. 22, Welch sent a letter to county officials offering a proposed settlement of the service delivery dispute.
Among other things, the letter proposed that:
• The county transfer 10 percentage points of its Local Option Sales Tax (LOST) revenue to the city. That would give the city 45% of LOST funds and cost the county about $1.6 million a year. The LOST is a 1% sales tax collected on most goods sold in the county that local governments use to fund their operations. The letter proposes that this deal would be locked in for 12 years, eliminating the need to renegotiate the LOST agreement in 2022. Cities and counties typically renegotiate their LOST agreements after the results of the census are in, which would be in 2022.
• The city will take over the Dalton Convention Center in 2020, and the county will pay the city a one-time payment of $2 million for its share of deferred maintenance.
• Starting in 2020, the county will fund at least $2.2 million of its budget from property taxes and other revenue generated in a new special tax district that would be identical to the three existing special tax districts that exclude the City of Dalton. The existing special tax districts are for the fire department, the landfill and services the city and county share such as the library. The letter said that the $2.2 million will offset the costs to the city of services it does not receive or will no longer receive from the county, including the county engineer's department, the county Parks and Recreation Department and administrative, human resources and finance expenses for services not received by the city.
The county rejected those proposals.