MARY ANN ANDERSON
Last Thursday’s monthly meeting of the Hazlehurst City Council rocked along smoothly until the agenda item of the Local Option Sales Tax (LOST) negotiations came up and the discussion became heated.
LOST is a 1% tax on retail sales in Jeff Davis County and the distribution of the proceeds of the tax must be renegotiated between the two governments after every census. Since it began, the county has received 60% of the proceeds, with the city getting the remaining 40%. For this year’s negotiations with the county, the city designated Mayor Bayne Stone and Ward 1 Councilman Dywane Johnson to hash out a deal with Commissioners Vann Wooten and Brad Crews, who represent the county.
The city and county must come to an agreement on the split before Dec. 30 or lose the entire amount, currently about $1.3 million for the county and $900,000 for the city.
With Ward 2’s John Ramay leading off the discussion, he said he wanted to point out to the public that in last week’s Jeff Davis Ledger that there appeared to be “false or incorrect information” in the article about the negotiations. The column was written by Ledger Editor-Publisher Tommy Purser. Ramay pointed out that the column said the city had asked for 70% of LOST, with the county to get only 30%. But he noted that wasn’t true, that the numbers were actually given to the city by the county with a 70-30 county-city as the first offer.
[EDITOR’S NOTE: We stand by the accuracy of the column.]
Ramay then made a motion that the council send a proposal letter to the commissioners asking for an “equal basis” split of 50-50 or about $1.1 million each. Johnson quickly seconded the motion, adding in an impassioned address to the council, “To go 50-50 is nothing but right … it’s nothing but fair.”
Johnson also noted that most of the LOST money is raised within the city limits and not the county, adding that the way LOST is set up by the Georgia Legislature makes the city and county “go after each other’s throats and fight each other” over the proceeds. He also said again that the 70-30 proposal came from the county, ardently saying, “Not the city.”
“It’s doing nothing but dividing us,” said Johnson. “We cannot let a little bit of money divide us.”
In referring to the commissioners, Ward 3’s Diane Leggett echoed Johnson, saying, “I don’t think we should lose friends, neighbors and colleagues over a little bit of money.”
That’s when Ward 4 Councilman John Bloodworth stepped in, telling Ramay that he understood his motion and Johnson his sentiments. But he wanted to accept the 60-40 split, the latest numbers from Stone and Johnson’s negotiations, just to meet the deadline of Dec. 30. Explaining that it was his understanding that the Constitution provides that negotiations can be “reevaluated and renegotiated” at any point after an agreement is reached, he added that he believed that with a “spirit of cooperation,” the city and county could eventually come to the 50-50 split. [EDITOR’S NOTE: The Georgia Constitution does not address the state’s Local Option Sales Tax. The distribution of LOST proceeds is addressed in O.C.G.A § 48-8-89.]
Saying that he didn’t want to “risk” his constituency by not meeting the deadline and losing the money, Bloodworth said that the city had to agree “right now,” adding, “It’s not about power. It’s not about who carries a bigger stick. It’s about what falls in line for our constituency, for our citizens, for our people.”
Stone reminded the council that he and Johnson had been selected to represent the city in the negotiations, ending with, “We’ve done our very best with it.” Stone also said that the county had hired a mediator to help with the deal, with her fees set at $200 per hour, per party, plus per diem.
“We didn’t decide to go into mediation,” the mayor said. “We were told.”
[EDITOR’S NOTE: O.C.G.A § 48-8-89 stipulates that the county must notify the state before July 1 of the second year following the year in which the census is conducted (July 1, 2022) that the renegotiation proceedings have begun. If the parties fail to reach an agreement within 60 days (Sept. 1, 2022) “such parties shall submit the dispute to nonbonding arbitration, mediation….” etc. The county did not make the decision to carry the matter to arbitration nor did they tell the city to go into mediation. State law requires that the matter be taken to arbitration.]
Bloodworth snapped back to the council, “I want it on the record that I have nothing to do with this because it is absolutely absurd . . . You’ve already discussed it and already made the motion. The people of Hazlehurst need to realize you’re not making the best decision for them.”
When the mayor asked for the vote to send the letter to the county asking for an equitable 50-50 split, he, Johnson, Ramay and Leggett said yes with only Bloodworth opposing the motion.