Albany's mayor, County Commission chairman make cases for distribution of LOST dollars

Nov. 24—ALBANY — As was the case a couple of months ago, the lines are drawn between the city of Albany and Dougherty County on the split of sales tax dollars between the two governments.

This time it's the local-option sales tax that is the source of controversy. Eventually, the two governments did reach an agreement to split another penny tax, the special-purpose local-option sales tax (SPLOST), with 64% of the anticipated six-year collections of more than $100 million going to Albany and 36% to the county.

The traditional division on the LOST has been 60-40 in favor of the city, and the newer transportation special-purpose local-option sales tax (T-SPLOST) goes 70 percent to the city and 30% to the county.

To clear up the alphabet soup, the T-SPLOST is earmarked for transportation-related projects, such as roads as well as the Southwest Georgia Regional Airport. SPLOST pays for identified capital projects.

LOST is a more straight-forward deal: The amount collected allows local governments to use the money to reduce or hold down property taxes and can be used for operating expenses, as well as capital expenditures. It also doesn't have to be approved by a referendum of voters, as is the case with the other two.

For Dougherty Commission Chairman Chris Cohilas, the issue is pretty clear. The county is constitutionally required to provide services that are high on cost but low on revenue, including Superior Court and the operation of the county jail.

The city has a cash cow in the form of utilities, whose proceeds can be used for the city's operating expenses, he said. The county, not so much.

The two sides have agreed to have a mediator hear their cases on Dec. 8, and that mediator will make a non-binding recommendation after the hearing. The city and county must agree to a split before the end of the year in order to extend the tax.

"This should have been settled a year ago," Cohilas said. "Our position is, if you put it down on a piece of paper, our expert actually said we were entitled to more money than the city. Why don't we just sit down and settle this? People are sick and tired of the arguing. This entire exercise is stupid."

Whatever the final split agreed upon turns out to be, it will have no impact on taxpayers' bottom line, the chairman said. That's because whatever amount is generated will be a deduction from their overall tax bill, whether it's the county's or city's bill.

"These dollars are essentially going to go to roll back your county taxes or your city taxes," Cohilas said. "People don't care whether it's the city or county.

"(But) we've already created our budget around the projected (60-40) split we've operated under for more than a decade."

The city is operating under the impression that one side needs to "win," while the reality is that property owners will lose if no agreement is reached, the commission chairman said.

"If we don't come to an agreement, the law is clear; everybody's taxes go up," Cohilas said. "The reality is the law is very clear: we need to reach an agreement to benefit the citizens."

For Albany Mayor Bo Dorough, the clarity of the law is also evident. Under Georgia Code Section 48-8-89, he said, the law requires that consideration be given to which entity provides services that include fire, emergency medical services, emergency management, 311 and 911 call lines, procurement and the SWAT team, as well as in which jurisdiction the tax money is collected.

The city provides the great bulk of financing for all of those operations, with the exception of EMS, the mayor said, and 95 percent of the taxes collected come from spending at businesses within the city limits.

"Those facts, combined with the fact that 82% of the population lives within the city limits, (call) for a more favorable distribution," he said. "What services does the County Commission deliver? Do you call the county when there's a crime in the city? If you call the fire department, you call the city."

Obviously, the argument goes both ways. The city pays a daily fee for inmates arrested by the Albany Police Department who are in the county's jail. The county contributes to the fire department's budget.

But, again, Dorough stressed that the county's contributions are low in many of the areas, including 4% for recreation provided throughout the county, for example.

"We're relieved the county is going to sit down and we will have, we hope, an impartial and fair mediation," he said. "We understand that the county's already made a budget for '22-'23, assuming the sales tax is extended. If the municipality and county can come to an agreement by the end of the year, it will be extended."