published Wednesday, December 26th, 2012

First LOST ruling favors three Georgia cities

Former Fort Oglethorpe City Manager Ron Goulart
Former Fort Oglethorpe City Manager Ron Goulart
Ronnie Moore

A judge has sided with three Georgia municipalities in their battle against Turner County over how local governments divide sales taxes.

Lawyers involved said the ruling is the first under a new arbitration process established by the state General Assembly to divide local options sales taxes.

The Albany Herald reported "in what may well be a landmark decision," that Georgia Senior Judge O. Wayne Ellerbee settled the special arbitration case involving some $886,000 in annual revenue. Ellerbee determined that the municipal governments of Ashburn, Sycamore and Rebecca will get half of the money, with half going to Turner County.

County officials had hoped to maintain the status quo and get 65 percent for the next decade.

Officials in North Georgia also are wrangling over how to split up millions of dollars worth of local option sales tax revenue.

"That's good news," Fort Oglethorpe City Manager Ron Goulart said when told of the cities' victory over Turner County. "I think the counties will be a little more ready to compromise. And cities, too."

Fort Oglethorpe and Ringgold, Ga., are in arbitration with Catoosa County over local options sales tax.

"We're just waiting for a judge [to be assigned]," Goulart said.

Catoosa County Commissioner Jim Cutler hadn't heard the details of the Turner County ruling.

"That's the chance each side takes," Cutler said of the judge's decision. "Once the arbitrer makes his decision, that's it."

Cutler said the consultant who's working with Catoosa County on the sales tax fight feels good about the county's chances.

The current split in Catoosa County is roughly 70 percent for the county and 30 percent for the two cities. When negotiations began, the cities proposed to cut the county's share to 61 percent, which would boost the their revenue by about $8 million or $9 million over a decade.

In response, the county proposed to take even more, almost 79 percent, which at 2011 rates would give it about $7 million over a decade.

The once-a-decade LOST apportionment process features what's been described as baseball-type arbitration. The judge is supposed to pick one proposal or the other — not a compromise of the two — a method meant to keep the sides from overreaching.

City and county officials in Walker County also are embroiled in a dispute over local option sales tax revenue. They weren't available for comment Monday.

about Tim Omarzu...

Tim Omarzu covers education for the Times Free Press. Omarzu is a longtime journalist who has worked as a reporter and editor at daily and weekly newspapers in Michigan, Nevada and California.

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