The Fayette Citizen-News Page

Wednesday, November 14, 2001

County agrees to tax equity talks


Fayette County has given up its attempts to halt court-ordered mediation of a tax equity dispute with three cities.

But since the results of the mediation aren't binding, the matter could wind up back in Superior Court.

"It seems like that's the best way to go," said Dennis Davenport, assistant county attorney. The decision was made "after consulting [with county commissioners] and looking at the pros and cons," he said.

Senior Judge Stephen Boswell will name a mediator to try and come to a meeting of the minds between Fayette and the cities of Fayetteville, Peachtree City and Tyrone.

Boswell last week ruled in favor of the cities, denying the county's motion to dismiss their request for mandatory mediation under House Bill 489, the 1997 state law requiring counties and cities to make sure their residents are taxed only for the services they receive.

"It's the best possible outcome we could have hoped for," said Barry Amos, town manager of Tyrone, following Boswell's ruling.

In a sometimes rancorous difference of opinion that has lasted more than two years, the cities claim their residents pay more in taxes than they receive in services from the county, to the tune of about $2 million a year. County leaders say just the opposite is true residents of the unincorporated area may be subsidizing services for city residents.

Following a series of heated debates in joint meetings with city officials, county leaders late last year called a halt to the discussions, saying they had given their final answer. "There is no tax inequity," they said.

Under HB 489, the cities earlier this year filed the request for mandatory mediation, saying the law requires that the dispute be settled.

After ruling that they are correct, Boswell said he will talk to Davenport and Rick Lindsey, the city attorney for Peachtree City who has been arguing the cities' case, before choosing a mediator.

"Rick and I will offer a name or two," said Davenport, "and he can take our suggestions or appoint one of his own.

"Then we go from there."

Going from there will require that, once the mediator is appointed, the county and cities begin negotiations within 30 days, and conclude within 60 days after that.

"We certainly would have preferred the other judgment," said County Commission Chairman Greg Dunn.

But, said Davenport, "It seemed to be best to go into mediation, and get to an end result."

City leaders say they are ready to get the matter into the hands of a mediator and get it settled.

"We've wanted to sit down with the county and discuss the issues, and at least mediation will allow us to do that," said Joe Morton, Fayetteville's city manager.

Peachtree City Mayor Bob Lenox said he feels the city is willing to settle the issue "with some professional assistance."

"It's a crying shame we had to go through all this effort to have a conversation with the county," Lenox said.