Even though county and city officials will continue to negotiate the distribution of money from the Local Option Sales Tax, the genteel talks are hitting some unexpectedly bumpy terrain.
At stake is the three governments share of an expected $160 million over the next 10 years, with each entity using different perceptions of fairness in arguing for more money. Columbia County officials correctly argue that the current formula for sharing the tax gives more to city residents than is justified by city populations. Harlem and Grovetown officials contend their cities provide services outside their borders, and thus deserve more of the money.
County Commission Chairman Barry Fleming, whose Commission seat includes the two cities, has become the de facto arbitrator. Though other commissioners argue for a new population-based formula that would drastically cut the cities income, Fleming has devised a plan that weans the cities from their high percentage shares, yet relies on annual commercial growth to increase overall revenues.
Its a good plan, and Harlem officials quickly agreed to it - but not without controversy. Like Grovetown Mayor Dennis Trudeau, Harlem Mayor John Bentley wanted to hold out for a greater share of revenue. Thats understandable; Harlem lost population since the last census while the countys numbers exploded. A realignment of the tax strictly by population proportions would cost Harlem hundreds of thousands of dollars in operating funds.
Bentleys holdout didnt last long. City Councilman Scott Dean, recognizing a good deal, sidestepped the mayor and convinced the other members of council to back Flemings plan.
Its a different story in Grovetown, whose approval is required before any agreement is final And unlike Harlem, Grovetowns Council is backing its mayor. Weve got 60 days to renegotiate, says Mayor Trudeau. Well take the time we need.
Time, however, may not be on the cities side - especially not if citizens in the rest of the county start to question a deal that perpetuates the uneven funding.
Under the current formula - which is loosely based on 20-year-old population figures - Harlem receives just over $400 per capita, per year in total benefits from the tax; Grovetown gets just over $250; and residents of the unincorporated area of the county receive just $88 each. Flemings plan brings those numbers closer to fairness, but doesnt entirely erase the inequity.
Though it may be an uncomfortable sign for Harlems solidarity, Dean is right to snag an agreement that keeps the city from losing money as it loses population. While Grovetown is in better shape, population-wise, Trudeau and his troops would also be wise to sign on to the plan before Flemings fellow county commissioners follow Deans example and clamor to cut a better deal.
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