County supervisors now say they are willing to negotiate the details of a potential $80,000 increase in the fee Lowndes County charges the city of Columbus to collect its property taxes.
It’s a step back from Monday when supervisors voted 4-0 to amend their agreement with the city increasing its fee from $120,000 to $200,000, starting in FY 2019 — a decision city officials said caught them completely by surprise. At the time, county officials said the city had until Oct. 1 to accept the changes or the agreement would be nullified, meaning Columbus would have to begin collecting its own property taxes for the first time in 17 years.
City attorney Jeff Turnage sent a letter to county officials Wednesday morning saying the city had to have nine months notice for a fee increase, per the agreement between city and county officials in 2002 when the county first began collecting the city’s taxes.
“There is not nine months’ time between today’s date and October 1,” Turnage said in the letter. “Therefore, the city of Columbus and Lowndes County will be able to operate under the present fee structure until at least October 1, 2019.
“It is the city’s position that if the county wishes to discuss an increase in the fees that there will be a meeting at which all parties would express their opinions and concerns about this matter,” the letter continues.
Turnage told The Dispatch that should the city and county not come to an agreement on this amendment, then one party would need to send in a notice by January 2019 in order for the contract to be terminated for the following FY 2020.
Board Attorney Tim Hudson agreed. Legally, he said, if the city and board cannot come to an agreement on the amendment, the termination cannot happen overnight.
“Absolutely, (Columbus City Council members) have the right to vote on (the amendment),” he told The Dispatch. “Unilaterally (the supervisors) can’t just raise the price.”
Hudson followed up with a letter to city officials agreeing to negotiations and adding if the two parties cannot reach an agreement, the city should consider the county’s vote nine months notice.
Plans to negotiate
Board of Supervisors President Harry Sanders, who initially told The Dispatch the $80,000 increase was non-negotiable, told The Dispatch he is OK with negotiating the terms of the amendment. He said his position changed when he realized there was a misunderstanding with the original agreement.
“We were under the impression there’s a 90 day notice so I thought we had to bring it to the board (Monday)…We found out after the board meeting that it is a nine months notice,” Sanders said. “If we had known if it was nine months notice, we would have done it nine months ago.”
Columbus Mayor Robert Smith said he hopes the city and the county can come to an agreement that will work for all parties, including the Columbus Municipal School District, which pays part of the fee.
“I am willing to sit down at a table with the representatives from the county, the school district, the tax assessor and see what options there are,” Smith said. “…I know (the county) should have given us a nine-month notice and they haphazardly did not follow the correct procedure, but ultimately, we want to do what’s in the best interest in the citizens.”
Both Sanders and Smith said there is no date set for negotiations, though they hope to meet sooner rather than later.
“We’ve got plenty of time to talk about it if we need to,” Sanders said. “We don’t have to do it today or next month … but we need to within in the next 15 months or the automatic renewal of the resolution is going to be nullified.”
Smith added there is room for the city’s fee to increase, though he said he’d have to “look at the numbers” before going into specifics.
Smith also said the city is looking at other options for future tax collections, should the county and the city not be able to reach an agreement.
“We are going to have a look at other avenues…see what the other municipalities are doing for our size to be handle our own collection….seeing what type of money in house we are working with,” he said.
Oxford, which has a population of about 23,000, has a separate property tax collection from Lafayette County. The city clerk’s office holds the collections and runs on a $466,000 fiscal budget with five employees.
Of the $120,000 the city pays for the tax collection, $85,000 comes from Columbus Municipal School District. Smith said when the city and county meet to discuss the collection fee, CMSD superintendent Cherie Labat, CMSD Board of Trustees President Jason Spears and the school board will all have a place at the table.
Spears says he is not sure how the outcome will affect the school district’s tax collections because he was not aware of the original agreement’s existence.
“I really didn’t even know about the agreement that has brought to light,” he said. “… I thought it was kind of the way things operated.”
Spears also said that he would like to be see the original agreement before deciding what the school district’s position will be in negotiations.
“We’re kind of learning how it comes together … Our biggest part isn’t the negotiations as much as it is about understanding how it affects us and what we’re liable for and what we’re not liable for,” he said.
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