Atlanta Mayor joins city bloc, “gravely concerned” over sales tax stalemate

Appen Newspapers — Mayors from 12 Fulton County cities gathered in Atlanta Monday to share growing concerns over negotiations with the county to reach an agreement on the distribution of countywide sales tax revenue.

Speaking before a backdrop of firetrucks from Atlanta, South Fulton and Sandy Springs, the mayors said hopes of a resolution continue to fade following the latest round of talks with Fulton County officials.

For months, city officials have been at odds with Fulton County over how the estimated $3 billion in revenue from the local option sales tax will be apportioned over the next 10 years.

The latest negotiations, held Oct. 7 at the Georgia Municipal Association offices in Atlanta ended without a resolution or clear way forward.

Atlanta mayor concerned
Speaking to a crowd of officials and media, Atlanta Mayor Andre Dickens said he was gravely concerned over the discourse that has come from Fulton County negotiators.

“More importantly, they are not engaging in this process in a way that will reach an appropriate outcome by the deadline,” Dickens said. “In fact, Fulton County continues to hold up the threat of letting LOST expire altogether, a reckless move that would be disastrous for the residents that we all serve.”

Dickens, who has largely steered clear from the public displays surrounding the 2022 LOST, said that like the other 14 cities in Fulton County, Atlanta would suffer greatly if LOST were eliminated. LOST revenues make up nearly 20 percent of Atlanta’s general fund revenue, which funds “vital public safety and quality of life” projects, he said.

Atlanta Mayor Andre Dickens speaks to a group of gathered officials and media at a press conference Monday, Oct. 17, at the Fulton County Civic Center. Dickens was joined by 11 other mayors, including, from left, Sandy Springs Mayor Rusty Paul, Fairburn Mayor Mario Avery and Alpharetta Mayor Jim Gilvin.

County officials have argued that they too have obligations, and county government provides many state-mandated services like libraries, public health and a court system. Those services, they argue, have only increased by the wave of new cities incorporating over the past 15 years.

The county is seeking to increase its split of the sales tax revenue from the 4.97 percent it has received over the past 10 years to as much as 15 percent or higher.

“We believe that the work of the cities is clearly important,” Fulton County Commission Chairman Robb Pitts said at a recent mediation session. “But we know, without a doubt that the services Fulton County provides are important. In fact, in most cases they are a matter of life and death for many people.”

A public safety issue
The mayors argue that cutting their share of LOST funding would ultimately impact services like fire, EMS and police the most, because their most expensive pieces of equipment are largely funded by tax revenues.

Sandy Springs Mayor Rusty Paul said that if the county’s LOST revenues are increased, his city, along with Milton and East Point, cannot raise their millage rate to make up the difference with property taxes.

That means their only option is to cut services.

“We have the ability in our city to pay to make sure that people have an eight-minute response time with our ambulance services … that goes away, then response time on ambulance service goes up 50 percent in Sandy Springs, that means people will die,” Paul said.

Sandy Springs Mayor Rusty Paul speaks at a press conference Oct. 17 about negotiations with Fulton County over distribution of the countywide local option sales tax. Behind him are mayors from a dozen Fulton County cities, including Roswell Mayor Kurt Wilson, second from left, and Alpharetta Mayor Jim Gilvin, third from right.

Paul said that after the last negotiation session held Oct. 7, there’s been no sign that county officials want to come back to the negotiating table.

“We’re at a total stalemate,” he said.

Negotiations halted
During that meeting, county negotiators proposed raising the county’s share of LOST distributions from the current 4.97 percent to 7 percent and then up to 15 percent over 10 years.

City negotiators noted this proposal was nearly identical to several previous offers that had already been rejected, due to their expected impact on the cities.

“Mayor Dickens laid out a plan based on conversations with the county commissioners themselves that we thought would move the ball,” Paul said. “And what happened was they took two steps back and went back to a previous position, back to the 160 percent Increase, which just totally blew everything out of the water. So, we’re at an impasse right now.”

Dickens said the cities were generous when they offered up a 40 percent increase in county LOST proceed, and he called the 160 percent increase proposal a “slap in the face.”

Johns Creek Mayor John Bradberry speaks at a press conference in Atlanta Oct. 17 regarding negotiations with Fulton County officials over distribution of the countywide local option sales tax. Behind him from left, Milton Mayor Peyton Jamison, Mountain Park Mayor Jim Still, College Park Mayor Bianca Motley Broom, Sandy Springs Mayor Rusty Paul and Atlanta Mayor Andre Dickens.

Closing out his comments on Monday, Dickens challenged county officials to return to the negotiating table and for residents to contact their district representative on the County Commission to press them for a resolution before the current LOST agreement expires on Dec. 31.

“To the County Commission, it’s simply time to step up, come to the table and work with these mayors to get this done,” Dickens said. “We all have a job to do and I’m calling on you right now to work with us to get this done.”

City and county officials have not scheduled any additional mediation sessions and initially planned to advance the issue to a formal arbitration process if mediation fails.

Alpharetta Mayor Jim Gilvin previously told Appen Media that so far, county officials have expressed no interest in participating in arbitration with the cities.

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