Harlem and Grovetown officials have been hesitant to sign Columbia County's contract for proposed fire service changes, saying that they felt it didn't serve the cities' needs. So they drew up their own.
Details of the county's contract worried city officials, who think it would double-tax city residents already paying for fire service through city taxes, Harlem Mayor Scott Dean said.
But Board of Commissioners Chairman Ron Cross said there are other legal issues that need to be resolved before contract details can be discussed. If city residents are excluded from the tax, county officials are unsure if they are legally able to subcontract with those departments for the unincorporated areas they now serve.
"The thing that hits us is that the details of the contract are not important until you realize whether you can contract that way," Cross said. "We've got this question of taxes, who is going to collect the revenue. If they can continue collecting the revenue without us applying a countywide tax, that is fine.
"Then we will face the question of do we want to contract with them for the unincorporated areas they are serving now. Then, at that point, the contract becomes important. Until then, we have some legal questions that have got to be answered."
A letter accompanying the cities' agreement cited an opinion of the state attorney general that says only a county resolution is needed to dismiss city residents from the already approved countywide plan to increase property taxes to cover fire service. County officials received an opinion that it may not be possible to contract with a municipality, Cross said.
"We've still got some legal interpretations to consider before we get to the contract stage about our ability to tax the people within the city limits," Cross said. "We know we have the ability, but apparently there is some disagreement that we don't have to. We feel like if we tax anybody in the county, we have got to tax everybody.
"(City officials) say there is a legal position that says we don't have to tax people in the city limits. We're trying to determine if that's true. That would be fine with us if we didn't have to do that ... If that is the case, it would probably simplify things for us."
Until that is resolved, contract details are not pertinent, Cross said.
In the meantime, county officials have requested a copy of the state attorney general's ruling on tax district creation.
"From our standpoint, a meeting with our attorney with Doug Batchelor with the attorney general interpretation, as soon as we can get that, I think is probably the next step for us," Cross said.
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