A dispute between Walker County, Ga., and its cities over how to split millions of dollars in sales tax revenue over 10 years took a step forward recently when an out-of-county judge was appointed to hear the case.
But a Georgia Supreme Court hearing in June could send sales tax negotiations back to the drawing board in Walker County and elsewhere around the state.
G. Grant Bradley, a senior judge from Kennesaw in Cobb County, Ga., has been assigned to rule in the dispute among Walker County and its five cities: LaFayette, Chickamauga, Rossville, Lookout Mountain and Fort Oglethorpe. The latter is mainly in Catoosa County, but a sliver of Fort Oglethorpe is in Walker.
"The judge was appointed last week," Walker County Attorney Don Oliver said.
The cities want more revenue from local option sales tax, which is a levy of 1 cent per $1 of sales. Now, Walker County keeps 80 percent of that money, and the five cities split 20 percent.
SLICING THE PIE
A change in state law allowed Georgia cities to argue for a larger slice of the pie during once-in-a-decade LOST negotiations based on eight criteria. For example, a city can argue it deserves more sales tax because a large retailer is located inside city limits.
LaFayette hired a consultant who initially argued the cities should get 45 percent of the estimated $54 million in LOST revenue generated over a decade.
During negotiations in August, Walker County Sole Commissioner Bebe Heiskell offered to give the cities 25 percent. City officials countered they'd be willing to accept 30 percent.
If the cities and county can't reach an agreement, the dispute would go to Bradley for what's known as baseball-style arbitration. Bradley would pick one proposal or the other -- not a combination of the two. That's meant to keep either side from overreaching.
LaFayette City Attorney David D. Gottlieb said city officials haven't chosen a percentage to submit if the matter goes to arbitration.
"At this point, we don't have a firm [figure]," Gottlieb said.
In South Georgia, meanwhile, Turner County will ask the Georgia Supreme Court on June 4 to overturn a judge's decision to split its LOST revenue 50-50 with its cities of Ashburn, Rebecca and Sycamore.
The county of about 9,000 people argues that baseball-type arbitration is unconstitutional.
Ashburn City Attorney Tommy Coleman told Albany TV station WALB 10 that until the high court issues a ruling, counties and cities across the state are in limbo.
"I think it's kind of had a chilling effect," Coleman said. "Nobody wants to do a great deal until they find out what the Supreme Court really says about this."
Catoosa County and its cities also are grappling over LOST revenue. County attorney C. Chad Young couldn't be reached for comment Wednesday.
Contact staff writer Tim Omarzu at firstname.lastname@example.org or 423-757-6651.
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.