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Cities, county miss deadline for service plan
Gwinnett files for mediation

LAWRENCEVILLE - Gwinnett and its 15 cities have lost their status as qualified local governments and could miss out on grants and stimulus funds because of a dispute over the delivery of services.

After two years of negotiations, officials missed a weekend deadline to file a new service delivery strategy with the state, but Gwinnett's attorney filed a petition in court Monday to seek mediation on the issue.

The county is asking a judge to stop sanctions listed in state law for failing to reach an agreement at the expiration of the 1999 strategy.

"The cities are very disappointed. ... This is unnecessary," said Suwanee Mayor Dave Williams, who is president of the Gwinnett Municipal Association, which represents all 15 cities. "For over two years we've been working to get a solution. We would have preferred to work it out directly with the county."

But Williams said he hopes the suit will allow the governments to remain eligible for permits and grants.

"If this gets us closer to resolving the issue, that's great," he said, "but if this is designed to avoid sanctions and delay further, that speaks for itself."

Georgia Department of Community Affairs Assistant Commissioner Mike Gleaton said county and city officials were warned in a Feb. 3 letter of the Feb. 28 deadline. Today, he said, letters will be prepared explaining the loss of status, which also hampers the ability to get state permits. The governments cannot regain eligibility until April 1 at the earliest.

Kim King, the department's spokeswoman, said officials could not comment on the lawsuit until they read it.

The service delivery strategy, required by a state law passed a decade ago, was created to ensure residents don't experience double taxation or overlapping services.

Williams said Friday that city and county leaders agree on 58 services, but city officials were seeking a change to the county tax rate for people who live in cities that provide transportation and police services.

After five delays at the county's request, Williams said, a rate has not been decided. City leaders sought a two-month extension to the current service delivery strategy to continue negotiations. But Gwinnett Chairman Charles Bannister refused to sign the document, asking for a yearlong extension instead.

"We'll follow the rules of the sanctions, made by DCA," Bannister said Monday. "I'm assuming we will move forward (with mediation)."

Deputy County Administrator Mike Comer said a court date has not been set, as a judge from outside of Gwinnett County must be assigned to the case.

"Gwinnett County has a responsibility to provide every one of its nearly 800,000 citizens with services at a fair cost, including the 20 percent of the population that resides within city limits. City governments, by contrast, are responsible solely to city residents, about 160,000 people collectively," a press release issued by the county Monday evening said. "Disagreement remains between the county and the cities about the level of service the county provides to city residents and how much should be paid for those services."