A meeting between officials from Douglasville and Villa Rica last week again ended with neither side willing to compromise.
Douglas County has taken the position that it has divided up the municipal portion of the LOST that is to be shared by Austell, Douglasville and Villa Rica, leaving the two larger cities — Douglasville and Villa Rica — to decide how they will divide the overall amount.
“I think basically what you have right now is Douglas County has come to terms with Douglasville as to what the municipal share of LOST will be and now it’s just determining what Villa Rica’s share is going to be,” Villa Rica Mayor J. Collins said. “We contend that our percentage should be a considerable amount higher than what we’ve been offered.”
Technically, a lawsuit was filed earlier this year by Douglasville, and indirectly the other municipalities, against Douglas County when an agreement couldn’t be reached. But all of Douglas County’s Superior Court judges recused themselves from the case, citing conflict of interest and the case is awaiting another judge to be appointed.
In the interim, Douglas County and Douglasville had seemingly settled on a division of LOST proceeds. But Villa Rica, upset that it would receive less than 1.5 percent in the first of a 10-year plan and an average of 4.05 percent over the course of the 10 years, cited a new statute that requires the city receive a minimum percentage equal to its population in the county, which is 4.22 percent based on the 2010 census. Villa Rica’s claim led to Douglas County and Douglasville canceling a special May 29 meeting in which they were planning to sign the new agreement, and a new round of negotiations began with Villa Rica.
“We continue to be in negotiations with both Douglas County and the city of Douglasville to try to arrive at some type of mutually acceptable distribution of the LOST proceeds,” Villa Rica City Attorney David Mecklin said. “The case has been filed, but whether or not it’s likely to be settled prior to a hearing in the matter, I think we’re trying to come to an agreement. We’re making an attempt to come to some type of resolution, but thus far no agreement has been reached.”
Based on the statute, Mecklin said, Villa Rica believes it has the law on its side if the case actually goes to court.
“The city of Villa Rica’s belief is that there is a mechanism that sets forth what we should receive if we choose simply not to agree to what Douglas County and the city of Douglasville proposes,” he said.
Collins is optimistic a settlement can be reached without having to go to court.
“I think we’re very close to working out an agreement,” he said. “I haven’t completely given up on that. Everyone that we’ve talked with are reasonable professionals and elected officials, and I think once everyone has digested the information we’ve presented and looked at it objectively that hopefully they’ll come to their senses.”
Some Villa Rica officials are skeptical an agreement will ever be reached outside of court.
City Manager Larry Wood said he left the meeting last week with the feeling that an agreement will not be reached without a judge’s intervention.
“Neither Douglas County nor Douglasville has indicated they are willing to budge one inch,” he said. “Both of them are willing to go to court and let the court pick one or the other case. I was just shocked when we met with them that they were not willing to compromise whatsoever.”
The monetary difference between the percentage Villa Rica is seeking and the 10-year average Douglas County has offered is slightly more than $400,000 — an average of a little more than $40,000 per year. Currently, Villa Rica receives 0.5 percent of the Douglas County LOST per year, or about $140,000.
“What we can’t seem to get Douglas County and Douglasville officials to understand is that we’ve been carrying this load for five years, where this side of our city is not getting the sales tax it should from the Douglas County side. We just want them to give us the minimum,” Wood said.
To illustrate how little the city receives in LOST proceeds from Douglas County, city finance officials recently ran an analysis combining LOST and property taxes. It was discovered that Douglas County residents should have been paying 9 mills the last five years or more, compared to the 6 mills being paid by Carroll County residents to make up for the difference in LOST proceeds provided by the two counties.
The city is in the process of researching whether it should be setting separate millage rates for residents living in Carroll and Douglas counties, regardless of the outcome of the LOST negotiations. If the city receives the amount from Douglas County it expects then officials say the millage rate on the Douglas County side of the city could actually be less.
To set separate millage rates, the city would have to spend LOST dollars collected in one county only on that side of the city, a restriction it hasn’t had to abide by in the past.
“We’re going to do what’s best for the citizens of Villa Rica and we don’t want to short-change anybody, whether that be Douglas County and the city of Douglasville because we understand those governments have needs and a population that need to be awarded a percentage of that LOST,” Collins said. “We just feel that what’s been offered is not a fair and equitable share. We’re not trying to go after any money that’s not due us, and when I say us I’m speaking of those citizens of Villa Rica who live in Douglas County.”