published Thursday, July 18th, 2013

Walker County sales tax dispute in mediation

Officials in Walker County, Ga., and its cities haven't been able to agree how to share some $50 million in sales tax revenue over the next decade.

So Norman S. Fletcher, a former chief justice of the Georgia Supreme Court, will be in LaFayette today for a closed-door, likely daylong mediation session with representatives from the cities and the county.

Since retiring from the bench, Fletcher, 79, has specialized in mediation and arbitration for a Rome, Ga., law firm.

This will be his fifth time mediating a dispute between cities and counties over local option sales tax, a levy of 1 cent per $1 in sales.

"I have hopes," Fletcher said, for the Walker County situation. "I do have great regard for all the parties involved."

Fletcher knows Walker County well. He was the city of LaFayette's attorney for 25 years and the county attorney for 18 years.

Overall, Fletcher said, 82 percent of the cases that he mediates are successful.

But he's averaging only 25 percent, or one successful mediation out of four, in LOST mediations.

"It's not easy," Fletcher said. "It brings your average down."

The one successful mediation involved one city, Cumming, and one county, Forsyth. The three failed negotiations involving Atlanta, Savannah and the city of Forsyth were harder, Fletcher said, because multiple cities were negotiating against their respective counties.

If mediation fails, the next step is winner-take-all, baseball-style arbitration under which each side will make separate proposals to split the LOST money. Senior Judge G. Grant Bradley of Cobb County has been assigned to arbitrate the case if mediation fails. Bradley will pick one proposal or the other, not a combination of the two.

Confidential meeting

The county has been keeping 80 percent of local option sales tax revenue, leaving 20 percent to be divided among LaFayette, Chickamauga, Rossville, Lookout Mountain and a sliver of Fort Oglethorpe that's in Walker County.

When LOST negotiations began about a year ago, the city of LaFayette argued for whittling the county's share to 55 percent. The city based that figure on a study done by a consultant it hired.

Later, in August 2012, officials from LaFayette, Rossville and Lookout Mountain agreed they would accept 30 percent of LOST revenue, leaving 70 percent for the county. But county Sole Commissioner Bebe Heiskell wouldn't budge from a 75/25 split.

Today's mediation session will begin with all parties in one room in a courthouse annex building near the commissioner's office. Then they'll split up into different rooms, and Fletcher will shuttle back and forth among them.

The media and the public aren't allowed, Fletcher said.

"The Georgia Open Meetings Act excludes mediations among governments from the open meetings laws," he said. "Everything that goes on there is supposed to remain confidential."

The closed-door negotiations can't even be used in court if the sides later sue one another, he said.

Heiskell is hopeful that Fletcher's mediation session will allow the sides to reach an agreement.

"This is a guy we all know," she said. "We think he's an expert in the field. And both sides believe he's going to be fair."

Lookout Mountain City Councilman Jim Sabourin also hopes mediation will succeed.

"We all hope that [Fletcher] can find some common ground between all parties," Sabourin said. "He understands the workings of city and county government."

Fletcher agreed that steering the state's high court may give him some gravitas in his current work as a mediator.

"It might, a little," he said. "That and my gray hair and age."

Contact staff writer Tim Omarzu at tomarzu@timesfreepress.com or 423-757-6651.

about Tim Omarzu...

Tim Omarzu covers Catoosa and Walker counties for the Times Free Press. Omarzu is a longtime journalist who has worked as a reporter and editor at daily and weekly newspapers in Michigan, Nevada and California. Stories he's covered include crime in blighted parts of metro Detroit and Reno, Nev.; environmental activists tree-sitting in California's Sierra Nevada foothills; attempts by the Michigan Militia to take over a township¹s government in northern Michigan. A native of Michigan, ...

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