City, county seem far apart on LOST negotiations

Published 1:48 pm Friday, August 3, 2012


Managing Editor and News Writer

The City of Bainbridge and Decatur County appear to be at odds, in the ongoing Local Option Sales Tax (LOST) negotiations.

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The LOST is a one-cent sales tax that has been collected since 1975, and it is intended to lessen the burden on property tax payers. Every 10 years, local government representatives must negotiate how those tax payments should be doled out. Approximately $4.5 million is collected each year in LOST proceeds.

The most recent LOST distribution was 2.46 percent to Attapulgus, 41.38 percent to Bainbridge, 1.08 percent to Brinson, 1.63 percent to Climax, and 53.45 percent to unincorporated Decatur County. That distribution was based almost entirely on population.

County Administrator Gary Breedlove said last week that the county is seeking an additional share of the pie, for several reasons. He pointed out that the county loses $400,000 a year on its Emergency Medical Service (EMS), which meets the needs of all the population of Decatur County, including the city of Bainbridge residents.

He also noted that the county covers 625 square miles of land area, while the city only covers 18 miles. Breedlove stated that the county has 675 miles of roads it has to maintain, and many of those are dirt roads that require more regular maintenance.

“Our main concern is that we have a lot of services that we offer, and we cover a larger area so it often costs more in fuel and labor time to accomplish those services,” he said.

Although Breedlove only said that the county wanted “more” LOST proceeds, Bainbridge City Manager Chris Hobby stated that the county is seeking 60-65 percent, a number he said was “unacceptable.”

Hobby is the negotiator for the City of Bainbridge, Breedlove is the negotiator for Decatur County, and Mayors Johnny Medley of Attapulgus, Jimmy Earp of Brinson and Charles Hadsock of Climax represent their municipalities.

Hobby said he would like to see the agreement focus on splitting the revenue into two “pies,” one for the county government and the other for its four municipalities.

“[The cities] can work out how our share will be distributed amongst ourselves,” Hobby said. “I want to see the other cities left whole, so that their percentages won’t be any less than in the last round.”

“Right now, there would only be 33 percent of LOST collections to be split among the four municipalities,” Hobby said. “That would be a 10 percent reduction for us — the difference would be equal to a mill of property tax for every property owner within the city limits.”

Breedlove also explained that state legislation now requires LOST negotiations to take in additional factors, besides simply population. One of those factors is “service delivery,” which entails what services each entity provides and how many people use that service.

But Hobby questioned one of the county’s arguments, contained in a handout distributed by county officials labeled “population comparisons.” The handout lists the number of people in Decatur County as 27,842, a number which, according to the U.S. Census, also includes the residents of the other four cities. However, the handout then adds the overall county population to the cities’ populations to reach a “total” population of 41,483.

Using that math, the handout claims Decatur County serves 67.1 percent of the “total” population — which counts the four cities’ residents twice — and Bainbridge’s population as 30.61 percent of the “total.”

According to the U.S. Census, however, Bainbridge actually has 45.6 of the county’s residents, leading Hobby to call the county’s handout as “faulty math.”

Hobby said Census numbers also indicate that the city’s “daytime population” rises to 15,500 because of people who commute to Bainbridge for work. Other numbers related to Bainbridge, according to Hobby, are that it collects about 90 percent of local sales tax, that it has about 85.5 percent of the total retail operations and that it has about 95 percent of the total retail jobs.

The negotiating process began June 28. By law, the parties have 60 days to arrive at a consensus — approximately the end of August. If the parties are unable to agree at the end of those 60 days, an impartial arbitrator will make a non-binding recommendation. If the parties are unable to agree after 120 days, the matter will be decided by a non-Decatur County Superior Court.

Breedlove said he hopes the negotiations do not require court-based arbitration, but noted that it is “part of the process.”

“The bottom line is at the end of the game, we either agree or we go to Superior Court,” he said. “I don’t mean that in a negative sense, that’s just part of the process this year.”

Hobby said he remained “hopefully optimistic” that he and Breedlove would be able to reach a “mutually agreeable” formula for distribution of LOST.