City of Valdosta Addresses Lowndes County SDS Lawsuit
The Cities of Dasher, Hahira, Lake Park, Remerton and Valdosta (“Cities”) hope with the recent decision of the Georgia Court of Appeals, the Lowndes County Board of Commissioners will agree to negotiate service delivery strategy as it is required to do and cease further appeals and collateral attacks on the service delivery process itself. There are six governmental entities in Lowndes County. Five of the six have requested renegotiation. However, Lowndes County has refused. To prevent the Cities from utilizing the SDS dispute resolution process which is provided by O.C.G.A. 36-70-25.1(d) (2), Lowndes County filed a lawsuit against the Cities. As part of the lawsuit, Lowndes County requested the Court restrain the Cities from invoking the renegotiation process mentioned above. Lowndes County requested the following:
Lowndes County Complaint, Para. 57.
In its lawsuit, Lowndes County first argued the SDS dispute resolution process was unconstitutional and that a Court could not decide disputed issues between it and the Cities. The Georgia Supreme Court disagreed in a companion case arising from Greene County. See City of Union Point vs. Green County, 303 Ga. 449 (2018). Consequently, the Trial Court on July 18, 2018 ruled in favor of the Cities on this issue.
Lowndes County’s second attack against the negotiation process is that the SDS Agreement from 2008 remains in effect. In its lawsuit against the Cities, Lowndes County argued the following:
Lowndes County Complaint, Para. 18.
In a recent VDT article, Lowndes County stated that the Court of Appeals Opinion “says what is says.” The Cities agree. On page 15 of the Court of Appeals opinion, it says:
Consequently, Lowndes County’s second argument, that the 2008 SDS Agreement lives forever, fails as well. The Cities hope there will be no more appeals filed by Lowndes County. Since its legal attempts to avoid SDS negotiation have failed, the Cities hope that Lowndes County will now engage in the process required by the SDS Act as the Cities have requested from the beginning.
Why is this important for the Cities?
The Service Delivery Act is largely meant to eliminate or greatly reduce tax inequities. The recent article on SDS attorney fees highlights the tax inequity faced by the municipal residents of Dasher, Hahira, Lake Park, Remerton, and Valdosta. For example, the residents of those Cities pay 52% of Lowndes County’s tax digest. Lowndes County paid its SDS attorney’s fees from that revenue source. Consequently, municipal residents not only paid 100% of their own legal fees, they also paid 52% of Lowndes County’s.
That example is the equivalent to the tax inequity faced by the municipal residents when road funding is discussed. Lowndes County and the Cities have their own respective road systems. The Cities pay for their own road systems despite use by both incorporated and unincorporated residents. Lowndes County, whose road system is 97% in the unincorporated area, argues the entire county should pay for its system. Again, like the attorney fees, the municipal residents pay for 100% of their road systems but also pay for 52% of the budget for Lowndes County’s road system. In an effort to resolve SDS, will Lowndes County pay for 50% of the cost of their road systems without taxing the municipal residents?
With respect to water and sewer, the issue is what governmental entity can provide services more effectively and whether the Cities can deliver water and sewer service outside of their respective boundaries. Lowndes County has repeatedly raised concerns about annexation. However, as the Cities have maintained all along, SDS is not about annexation. Additionally, annexation is not something a City can do without a request from the individual or entity to do so. However, to the extent anyone is concerned about the prospects of residential annexation, and in an effort to resolve SDS dispute, the Cities re-extend the following offer: for any existing residence, proposed or existing residential project, the City will agree to follow the same process utilized in the 2008 SDS Agreement. This will provide Lowndes County veto power over any request. However, for commercial and industrial projects, the Cities again propose customer choice. If the commercial or industrial prospect desires City water and sewer service, then the Cities will be allowed to provide it without having to seek permission.
Lowndes County has spent $482,641.42 trying to legally avoid the SDS renegotiation process mandated by state law. It has not only sued all the Cities in Lowndes County, but also State agencies. The Cities have spent $377,506.48 defending Lowndes County’s lawsuit. The Cities’ position is simple: Stay your lawsuit, consider the offers above and move on for the betterment of all the citizens of Lowndes County, incorporated and unincorporated alike.