Mediation begins between city, county officials

LAWRENCEVILLE - City and county officials began sessions with a court-appointed mediator Wednesday to work out an agreement on the delivery of services and taxation.

Leaders from Gwinnett's 15 cities have asked for a property tax rollback for their residents, saying paying the full rate of county taxes on transportation and police services when they pay city taxes for those services amounts to double taxation.

But an attorney for the county said those charges are legal because the services are intended for people throughout the county, not just the 80 percent of the county's population who live outside of a city.

"We're working toward a resolution," Suwanee Mayor Dave Williams said after five hours of negotiations behind closed doors Wednesday. "I'm hopeful we made some progress today. Until we reach a conclusion, it's tough to gauge."

Negotiations will resume at 10 a.m. today and could continue through Friday.

After haggling for more than two years, leaders were unable to reach an agreement on the service delivery strategy when it expired at the end of February. All 16 governments faced sanctions of losing state permits and grants until a judge set aside the sanctions two weeks ago.

During the opening statements of the court-ordered mediation Wednesday, Gwinnett County Administrator Jock Connell accused city leaders of focusing on money instead of services and said attempts to negotiate with individual cities were rebuffed.

Attorney Walter Elliott said the county taxes should not be rolled back because the services are intended for all, but he said the county was willing to increase its police presence in the nine cities with police departments to make the service more uniform throughout the county.

Buddy Welch, the attorney for all 15 cities, said mayors and councils wanted the opportunity to pay for any police services they want, but he said some residents are overtaxed.

In addition to the police issue and transportation, he said Dacula leaders want an answer on why the county won't provide sewer to the area, and the city of Loganville is seeking $600,000 because residents were promised in a 1999 agreement a roll back for fire services, which the city provides.

"It is clear to us (county commissioners) have forgotten that city residents are also Gwinnett County residents," Welch said.

Because a quorum of county commissioners and city council members from all 16 governments attended the opening session, it was open to the public. The negotiations, attended by two commissioners, city and county administrators and mayors, were behind closed doors.

Mediator Denny Gallis, a former Athens city attorney, encouraged the officials to work out their differences.

"There is a guy around with a black robe who will tell you what to do if you can't resolve this yourselves," he said. "People are much more willing to accept a decision they are part of. ... It's going to get resolved. The only issue is by whom and when."