Mediation off after Dalton officials do not meet county's deadline to provide information

Members of the Whitfield County Board of Commissioners and the Dalton City Council won't be meeting in mediation to discuss their service delivery agreement next week.

Commission Chairman Lynn Laughter said city officials did not respond to the commissioners' request for information on what parts of the agreement the city wants to renegotiate and an explanation of how city officials reached a conclusion that city property owners are overtaxed by 5 p.m. on Wednesday.

"I want to make it clear, the county isn't refusing mediation," she said. "We are refusing mediation without any information about what they want to mediate."

Commissioners had agreed that if they did not receive that information by that deadline they would not accept the city's invitation for mediation on Oct. 17.

"We have sent them requests for information and have not gotten it," Laughter said. "At this point, the ball is in the city's court."

Mayor Dennis Mock did not immediately return a telephone message Wednesday evening.

In an email Wednesday night to County Administrator Mark Gibson, City Administrator Jason Parker said city officials "are working on information and a list of concerns to send you. It is difficult and unreasonable to work with arbitrary deadlines such as the one Chairman Laughter proposed. I'm surprised that the chairman believes that communicating such a deadline through a news story is an acceptable form of communication."

Parker said he "should be able to get information to you by noon (Thursday)."

In a September letter to the Whitfield County Board of Commissioners, Mock and City Council members said the city wished “to renegotiate the current service delivery strategy (SDS) among Whitfield County and its municipalities. After reviewing the services provided by the city and those provided by the county, the City of Dalton has identified that city taxpayers are paying approximately 3.3 mills more in county property taxes than is fair. This amounts to approximately $4 million annually in property taxes.”

The letter did not explain how city officials arrived at those numbers, and city officials up to now have refused to release information on how they arrived at those numbers to either the commissioners or to the media.

Under state law, cities and counties must negotiate a new service delivery agreement every 10 years, spelling out which services the different governments will provide and how they will be funded. The agreements are aimed at reducing duplication of services. Without such an agreement, the county, the City of Dalton and the other cities in the county become ineligible for state grants and other funding and permits.

The current service delivery agreement between the cities and the county expires on Oct. 31 and covers services ranging from fire protection to operations of the Dalton-Whitfield County Public Library to building permits.

Commissioners and the councils of the other cities have voted to recertify the existing agreement.

That leaves the Dalton City Council, which has been locked in a dispute with the Board of Commissioners for almost a year over whether city taxpayers should fund part of the administration of the services paid for by the county’s special tax districts as well as the sheriff’s office’s patrol division. The special tax districts pay for the county fire department and the county’s share of joint services.

The state Department of Community Affairs has set a deadline of Oct. 31 for the service delivery agreement to be recertified by all the local governments and accepted by the state.

City Council members in August appointed attorneys from the McDonough law firm of Smith, Welch, Webb & White as a special counsel to represent the city in those negotiations. The agreement between the city and Smith, Welch, Webb & White calls for the attorneys to be paid $225 to $300 an hour.

Mock said Tuesday the City Council would not waive attorney-client privilege to release the information being sought by the county and the media.

"That's up to our attorney, and I do not believe he wants us to do that at this point," he said.

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