Editorial: City, county service delivery talks heat up -- before they even start

The service delivery agreement negotiations between Dalton and Whitfield County have not yet begun, but one side is already preparing for what could be a game of hardball.

During its meeting on Monday night, the Dalton City Council hired an out-of-town law firm to help during negotiations with the Whitfield County Board of Commissioners.

State law requires cities and counties negotiate a new service delivery agreement every 10 years. That pact lays out which services each government will provide and how they will be funded. The goal is to reduce duplicated services. The current service delivery agreement between the city and county expires Oct. 31 and covers 40 to 45 agreements ranging from fire protection to the Dalton-Whitfield County Public Library to building permits.

The McDonough law firm Smith, Welch, Webb & White is representing the city as special counsel in these talks. The agreement calls for the attorneys to be paid $225 to $300 an hour, while a paralegal/secretary will be paid $115 an hour.

Those aren't the only costs.

The city will pay legal fees, expert witness fees and all other costs of preparation, negotiation and litigation, as necessary, that the firm incurs. Per the agreement, 5% of the city's monthly bill will be charged as an administrative fee which reimburses the firm for "out-of-pocket expenses such as copying costs, postage and billing expenses."

On top of those costs, when firm members travel to meetings or other out-of-office locations to represent the city, taxpayers will be billed at one-half the hourly rate for time spent traveling. McDonough is about two hours from Dalton (not counting Atlanta traffic).

According to the agreement, "Other costs such as court expenses, depositions, appraisals, expert witness fees, consultant fees, travel mileage, lodging expenses incurred and exhibits will also be charged separately from this administrative fee to the city attorney."

Over two to three months of negotiations, those attorney fees could soar.

Why did City Council members hire the outside attorneys when they already pay a city attorney? The two people we asked (Mayor Dennis Mock and council member Denise Wood) passed the buck and referred questions to City Administrator Jason Parker and City Attorney Gandi Vaughn -- who are extremely qualified but not elected by city residents.

"The special counsel attorney will work directly with the city attorney, but the special counsel has extensive experience in evaluating local government service delivery agreements, and in negotiations," said Parker.

That's a perfectly fine answer, but council members should be held accountable to taxpayers and explain their decisions, not hide behind city employees. The resolution council members members passed Monday night says they determined hiring a special counsel "to be in the best interest of the citizens of the city."

It appears the city doesn't want to get the short end of the stick in the negotiations, and council members are doing what they believe needs to be done to protect city residents. Perhaps they believe spending taxpayer money on a special counsel on the front end will result in a better service delivery agreement outcome for Dalton.

The county has not hired a special counsel. Commission Chairman Lynn Laughter said before the Monday meeting she wasn't aware the City Council was appointing a special counsel for the negotiations.

"At this time, commissioners do not plan to (appoint a special counsel)," said Laughter, who attended the City Council's work session Monday night."But that could change."

With the city's early power play, commissioners may find they can't afford not to have a special counsel.

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