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Staff photo by Erin O. Smith / Judge Charlie Bethel, Rep. Kasey Carpenter, Officer Bart Chandler, Sgt. First Class D.C. Gleaton, Dalton Mayor Dennis Mock, Bonnie Moore, Sen. Chuck Payne and Chairwoman Lynn Laughter serve as panelists during a public forum on gun safety at Dalton High School Monday, March 26, 2018 in Dalton, Ga. The forum gave students the opportunity to ask a variety of questions to state and community leaders, including topics on mental health, proactive measures and guns themselves.

The Dalton City Council believes city residents have paid $4 million in taxes that should have been paid by Whitfield County residents.

The money is at the center of a disagreement between the two entities and will be the focus of a mediation meeting set for Thursday, with former Georgia Supreme Court Justice Norman Fletcher serving as a mediator.

The mediation will focus on how local government pays for shared services such as public health services, sewer, fire service, public housing, law enforcement and dozens more.

The Dalton City Council believes city residents have paid millions in taxes since August 2018 for services that are provided by the county to mostly county residents.

"The county's intentional delay and stonewalling over the last year have cost the taxpayers upwards of $4 million in taxes," Dalton City Administrator Jason Parker wrote in a letter Thursday. "Because of the county's actions since January 2018, the city has been forced to approach the negotiation of the service delivery agreement as if it will have to be settled through litigation."

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The document in dispute between Dalton and Whitfield County covers a variety of public services, including:

Recreational facilities; senior citizen programs; historic preservation; cemetery maintenance; street lights; traffic engineering; road construction and maintenance; solid waste disposal; election administration; property tax assessment and collection; court services; public health services; ambulances; emergency rescue and first responder services; public housing; law enforcement and correctional facilities; fire fighting; 911 services; building inspection and permitting; animal control; illegal immigration control; he Northwest Georgia Trade and Convention Center; inmate housing; and public sewer services.

Source: Georgia Department of Community Affairs

For at least a year, the city of Dalton has wanted to renegotiate a document known as a Delivery Service Strategy — an agreement among municipal and county governments to fund mutual services that benefit all county residents.

Parker said city residents "appear to be funding more than 45% of [the] county's property tax revenues despite representing 32% of [its] population."

The meeting is set to happen after nearly a monthlong back-and-forth between the local governments, some miscommunication and threats of canceling the negotiations.

Last week, the county canceled the mediation meeting, saying it didn't want to go into the negotiations blind.

Hours later, the city notified the county about what its officials wanted to talk about, saying an attorney reviewed the services agreement and found city residents were paying about 3.3 mills more annually in county property taxes for services that aren't being delivered in the city.

The Whitfield County Commission initially said it didn't want to meet with little time to prepare, but Dalton Mayor Dennis Mock said the city will sit down at the table regardless of whether Whitfield County commissioners and staff show up.

"We're going to meet Thursday," Mock said. "The longer we put this off, the more our taxpayers will be funding services that they don't get and I don't think it's fair to put it off indefinitely."

Earlier this week, Whitfield County Chairwoman Lynn Laughter worried that the two sides were no closer to negotiating new terms for the county's service agreement after talks had fallen through about possible mediation.

Laughter said the county feels like it will now have only four full days to prepare for the meeting after the city of Dalton did not specify what parts of the agreement were up for debate.

In response, Parker said that "any reasonable person who is facing litigation with another party would not reveal his or her strategy before negotiation."

The city of Dalton believes it gave the county plenty of time to prepare given that agreement negotiations have been talked about for more than a year.

In a lengthy email, Parker listed nearly 40 services the city and county share that would be negotiated, everything from the airport and the coroner's office to traffic engineering and public transportation.

"That gives us only four business days to prepare," Laughter said in an email. "It looks like they threw everything but the kitchen sink in."

Whitfield County and three other municipalities — Tunnel Hill, Varnell and Cohutta — would rather negotiate the service agreement when the local option sales tax is negotiated, which happens every 10 years for Georgia counties and local municipalities.

Mock disagrees, saying that if city residents are paying more than they should be, putting it off is unfair to those taxpayers.

If an agreement isn't made before Oct. 31, Whitfield County could lose its qualified local government status — a state designation that ensures that municipalities don't duplicate services — and potentially miss out on millions in state funds.

Contact Patrick Filbin at pfilbin@timesfreepress.com or 423-757-6476. Follow him on Twitter @PatrickFilbin.

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