LOST deal emerges: Albany City Commission accepts deal from Dougherty County on sales tax issue

Dec. 29—ALBANY — With a deal made at the 11th hour, the LOST is now found again, or at least extended for another 10 years.

After weeks of sometimes contentious negotiations between the Albany and Dougherty County commissions, the city agreed on Thursday to accept what the county had offered from the beginning.

That was to retain the division of local option sales tax dollars at the same share as before, with the city receiving 60% of funds collected and the county getting 40%.

The extension of the penny sales tax is anticipated to bring in about $117 million over the decade.

The deadline for reaching an agreement was Friday, so the unanimous vote of the five city commissioners in attendance at a special called meeting Thursday was perhaps the last opportunity to avoid forfeiting the tax dollars entirely.

Commissioners Vilnis Gaines, Jon Howard, Chad Warbington and Demetrius Young, along with Mayor Bo Dorough, discussed the proposal to accept the county's 60-40 offer for about 25 minutes before taking the vote.

The recent notification that the city is in line to receive more than $100 million toward Phase I of its sewage system modernization project had some impact on the commission's stance.

The omnibus spending plan approved last week by Congress included a $109 million authorization for the project. While the authorization of that full amount could take several years, it offers some relief for the city, which is under a mandate to achieve 85% separation of stormwater and sewage in the combined sewage system by June 2025.

"This authorization, even though it is not guaranteed, is a good thing for our community," Dorough said.

Reacting to Howard's description of the 60-40 split as a "compromise," the mayor said, "I see it more as a concession. That's because they (county elected officials) never engaged in negotiations."

The county also ignored the statutory framework of the LOST legislation to engage, he said during a Wednesday interview. The county made arguments that the city has a profit-making Utilities Department, but that is not a statutory consideration under the law.

"There was no consideration for the statutory factors," the mayor said at the Thursday meeting. "Be that as it may, I do not want to put the city or Dougherty County in the position where those funds are not collected."

The local-option sales tax is one of three one-cent taxes collected locally that are shared by the two governments, the others being the special-purpose local-option sales tax (SPLOST) and transportation special-purpose local-option sales tax (T-SPLOST). Of those, the SPLOST is split 64%-36% in favor of the city, and the T-SPLOST is divided 70%-30%, with the larger portion again going to the city.

While the latter two taxes are earmarked for specific purposes, mostly infrastructure and equipment purchases and, for the T-SPLOST, identified transportation projects, the LOST can be used for any governmental purpose, including salaries.

The two sides also reached an agreement on the SPLOST as an October deadline approached, allowing for a six-year extension.

Outgoing County Commission Chairman Chris Cohilas, whose term ends Saturday, deemed the two lengthy negotiations as a "monumental waste of time."

"It turned out exactly where I predicted it should end up — and I thought it should end up — and we wasted a lot of time," he said during a Thursday telephone interview after he was informed of the city's decision. "This was the city trying to make the county pay for the city's sewer project. It's a $300 million project that the city is trying to pay for on the back of the county."

Cohilas, who headed the county commission for the past eight years, brought up a point a few other elected officials have also raised during the impasse: that the way to end such unproductive struggles in the future is to combine the two governments.

During the SPLOST negotiations, one of the city's requests was to place a referendum on the ballot for residents to weigh in on the consolidation question. That request was rejected 4-3 by the County Commission.

"I think this entire exercise is ridiculous; it is a waste of time and it is a perfect example of why they should consolidate," Cohilas said. "Taxpayers see this on TV, their elected officials fighting over the scraps.

"It is tremendously frustrating (that) we went through all this theater. I'm glad the city came to its senses and agreed to what the county thought was fair and we're through with all that drama."

In an email statement, District 5 County Commissioner Gloria Gaines said she was "relieved" at the announcement of the federal pledge of more than $100 million toward the estimated $350 million sewer project. She also referenced a concession the county made during the SPLOST negotiations to earmark an additional $3.5 million on top of the 64-36 split for the project.

The first phase of that three-phase renovation will meet the requirement of stormwater/sewage separation.

"I sympathize with the city's plight, which is indeed all our plight," Gaines said in her statement. "It is a requirement and a necessity. Our entire community will benefit from completion of this important project. I am happy that the county could make a contribution through a direct line item in our SPLOST of $3.5 million to be paid in the first two years of the tax, which starts next year."

Young, who represents the city's Ward VI, expressed the desire for the city and county to have discussions next year about the delivery of services provided by the two governments.

"I think what we're doing here today is responsible," he said of approving the LOST extension on the county's terms. "I think what we're doing here is the right thing to do, even though there should have been more consideration for our position."