After a two-year dispute, Cherokee County and its cities are close to finalizing an agreement on how to pay for services to taxpayers.
The county and city governments are making progress in ongoing negotiations over service delivery strategy arrangements, with Ball Ground, Canton, Woodstock, and Mountain Park all coming to an agreement with the county.
What is service delivery?Georgia requires counties and the cities within them to approve a service delivery strategy agreement every 10 years, designed to prevent residents from being taxed extra for a duplication of city and county services. Those local governments without an agreement are not eligible to receive some state money for new local projects, receive state permits and or receive incentives for economic development projects.
Cherokee County Commission Chairman Harry Johnston said Friday the cities and county are currently not compliant with the state, but should be soon once all parties approve the agreement.
Discussions on a new service delivery agreement began in 2018. A consultant for the cities, Brown Pelican Consulting, found the cities were paying an extra $18.9 million for mainly unincorporated county services. Cherokee County leaders, however, argued it was the other way around, saying a surplus of unincorporated revenues and payments for city services created a net benefit of about $13.2 million for municipal residents.
The main dispute was whether certain county services — mainly parks and recreation, roads, and stormwater — should be paid for through county-wide sources, namely county property taxes. Residents of unincorporated Cherokee County and cities within the county alike receive the same county property tax rate. Officials from the county’s three largest cities, Canton, Woodstock, and Holly Springs, argued that the county should carve out a separate fund for what they said were county-only services. The local governments have missed deadlines to pass the agreement and passed multiple extensions of the old agreement to regain qualified status.
A new agreement aims to resolve the remaining issuesLast month, the county presented the cities with a new intergovernmental agreement. It identifies the unincorporated costs and revenues associated with the agreement and specifies the county will only pay for these from unincorporated revenues, and establishes an annual financial reporting process. It defines stormwater as an unincorporated area expense, while roads and parks are countywide services. It also designates a county employee to serve as a liaison with the cities.
Woodstock City Manager Jeff Moon said the agreement requires the county to have an unincorporated service fund to track unincorporated expenditures in a transparent way, which the county had abolished in 2015 without notice.
Four cities have approved agreement
Ball Ground was the first to adopt the latest version of the agreement on May 20, though none of the latest changes have a direct impact on the city, according to City Manager Eric Wilmarth. But because of the county’s noncompliant status with the state, he said, water line projects and residential service connections were delayed that required permits to cross state highways, and the city missed two opportunities to apply for state grant funding.
Canton officials also approved an agreement May 20.
Canton City Manager Billy Peppers said Canton officials believe the agreement resolves prior issues. The next step for the city is to have Mayor Bill Grant sign the necessary documents at a future date.
Grant said his goal was to ensure proper accountability in how the city’s taxpayers’ funds collected by Cherokee County are spent. He added he is optimistic that Cherokee County and its cities can have a greater understanding and appreciation about issues such as these moving forward.
“In the past, the SDS agreements have been approved without a lot of detailed oversight or review, so I am proud of the arduous work our council delegates, city manager, and leaders have accomplished to ensure a better return for our citizens,” he said.
Peppers said that Canton has had some delay in funds or permits from the Georgia Department of Transportation because of the SDS issues.
Woodstock and Mountain Park joined the cities approving the agreement May 24.
Moon said the agreement went a long way in resolving the issues related to service delivery.
Mountain Park City Clerk Karen Segars said the dispute between the cities and Cherokee County didn’t affect Mountain Park, with the exception of not being able to receive funds from Local Maintenance and Improvement Grant until the issue is resolved. A portion of Mountain Park is in Cherokee County, while the rest of the city is in Fulton County.
Cherokee County, Holly Springs, Waleska and Nelson to consider the agreement
Geoff Morton, community development agency director for the county, said Tuesday the Cherokee County Board of Commissioners will vote on the agreement June 15. Nelson, which is in Cherokee and Pickens counties, is scheduled to review the agreement Monday.
According to Holly Springs City Manager Rob Logan, the city council will discuss the agreement Monday, and will make a decision during a special called meeting later that evening.
Part of the agreement is a commitment that the county will fund a $150,000 transportation study of the Old Highway 5 Corridor, Logan told the Tribune. The study includes traffic signal timing, widening and other related improvements. The county would agree to two joint project agreements with Holly Springs including a sidewalk and drainage project along Hickory Road, and a drainage project on Toonigh Road at Carson Court, and also submitted a draft agreement for a joint project to realign Palm Street with Holly Springs Parkway.
“These joint projects benefit the residents of unincorporated Cherokee County, as well as the residents of Holly Springs,” Logan said. “We are pleased that we are able to work together for the benefit of all of our residents.”
Robyn Smith, city clerk and manager of Waleska, told the Tribune the council will also consider the agreement Monday.
Johnston said Friday that he is glad that the cities and county have negotiations substantially completed.
“I appreciate all the hard work and thought that has gone into this process,” he said. “I am pleased that we can now move on to other important matters with the cities including coordination of our land use plans for more consistent management of the growth and development of our county.”
Once the SDS is approved and signed by all parties, it will be transmitted to the Georgia Department of Community Affairs for approval, Morton said. The process is expected to take about 30 days.