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Sandy Springs, Atlanta resolve Fulton County sales talks

FULTON COUNTY, Ga. — According to a letter signed by Atlanta Mayor Andre Dickens and Sandy Springs Mayor Rusty Paul, the monthslong battle between Fulton County and its 15 cities over the Local Option Sales Tax has come to an end.

The LOST one-penny sales tax is used by local governments to fund services like public safety, parks and recreation, libraries, courts, and other services, and by county governments to fund state-mandated services like county courts, jails, health departments and elections.

A new agreement for the $3 billion sales tax will grant Fulton County about 10 percent of total revenues generated over the 10-year life of LOST, documents obtained by Appen Media show.

“It is our hope and intent that this offer is received, considered, and accepted by the County effectively ending the required decennial renegotiation of the distribution of proceeds collected under the Local Option Sales Tax with a positive resolution to negotiations,” the letter said.

Signed by Dickens and Paul Nov. 1, who represent municipalities with a combined population of over 50 percent of county residents, the agreement was also reportedly approved by Fulton County Commissioners at their Nov. 2 meeting, with Commission Chair Robb Pitts and Commissioner Khadijah Abdur-Rahman abstaining and Commissioner Marvin S. Arrington, Jr. absent from the vote.

In a statement to Appen Media, Vice Chairman Liz Hausmann said she was pleased the two parties were able to reach a “positive conclusion” after the lengthy negotiation process.

“Under the new formula, the cities will remain whole, the county will share the increase, and the financial needs of both parties will be met,” Hausmann said. “Most importantly, Fulton County taxpayers are protected from tax increases from both Fulton County and their City.”

Prior to this agreement, city and county officials spent several months in official and unofficial negotiation and mediation sessions, debating whether Fulton County should receive a much larger portion of the tax revenues than it has received in recent years.

County negotiators initially argued for returning to a pre-2000 LOST distribution rate split of 35 percent to the county and 65 percent the cities, which raised an immediate outcry from city officials and residents.

On Friday, Paul said that he was exhausted by the negotiation process, but relieved by the agreement and is ready to move forward with other things facing his city.

“I think we worked out the best deal that we possibly reach, given the constraints and the fact that Fulton County had a veto,” Paul said. “They could have simply walked away and revenues to all of us would have disappeared, which would have been catastrophic. So, I think under the circumstances, we worked out the best deal that could be made.”

With this agreement now seemingly finalized, Fulton County city leaders will need to decide how the remaining 90 percent of total revenues will be divided. Most often, the pot is generally apportioned based on each city’s population, while the county keeps a small portion for administrative fees.

After that is decided, the cities and county will formally sign an agreement that will need to be filed with state officials before the Dec. 30 deadline.

City leaders were scheduled to meet with the Fulton County Board of Commissioners at a Specially called meeting on Friday, Nov. 4, but that meeting has since been removed from Fulton County’s calendar. Instead, city representatives met Friday in a closed session to discuss municipal LOST distributions.

Following that discussion, several north Fulton County mayors shared their appreciation that the negotiation process is almost finally over. But said some important questions still remain.

The biggest of those questions, beyond how the city portion of revenues will be divided, is how the LOST negotiation process can be streamlined in the future.

“We do a disservice to future city leaders 10 years from now, if we don't try to get this cleaned up in the legislature, before everybody forgets that we went through all this,” Alpharetta Mayor Jim Gilvin said.

Gilvin, and other municipal leaders, said they were forced to devote countless hours to LOST during the six-month negotiation process that could have been spent on other city business, due to what they believe is a broken system.

And the simple fact that the $3 billion LOST could have gone away, if things played out differently, is enough reason for the state legislature to act on it, they said.

“I think it's irresponsible for us to continue making such a critical decision in such a haphazard way,” he said.

Reach Alexander Popp at 770-847-7404. Follow him on Twitter @Popp2Alex.