City of Valdosta Press Release:
The Supreme Court of Georgia has decided the judicial resolution provision contained in the Service Delivery Act is constitutional. This means that the counterclaim filed by the Cities of Dasher, Hahira, Lake Park, Remerton, and Valdosta in response to a lawsuit filed in January 2017 by Lowndes County remains viable.
The dispute arose when the Georgia Department of Community Affairs informed the County and Cities that their Service Delivery Strategy—or, SDS—had to be reviewed and revised, if necessary, before October 31, 2016. A SDS is a series of agreements that specify the manner, nature, and funding for the provision of all governmental services provided within a particular county, including each city located therein. Each county in Georgia, and all cities located therein, is required to adopt and implement a SDS. The last time Lowndes County and the Cities approved a SDS was in 2008.
State law requires the review, and revision if necessary, for any approved strategy upon the occurrence of certain conditions, most notably in this case, the periodic updates to the comprehensive plan that must be made every ten years. Lowndes County commenced the deliberations between it and the Cities as required by Georgia law. But, the County then refused to make any changes to the existing SDS as requested by the Cities. The changes sought would have reflected ordinary changes that take place over time regarding population shifts and the manner and nature in which governmental services are provided between and among the County and each City. These changes also would have eliminated double taxation of city residents for services provided by the County in the unincorporated area only. State law requires that the residents, individuals, and property owners within a particular geographic area who receive a service must be the ones who pay for that service. Thus, the Cities sought to reach an agreement with the County on a new SDS that complied with State law.
Ultimately, the County and Cities voluntarily mediated their differences on September 28, 2016. But, the County still refused to accept most of the changes to the existing SDS proposed by the Cities. The County then filed a lawsuit to prevent the Cities from using the dispute resolution process provided for by the Service Delivery Act. That process is two-fold and includes court-ordered mandatory mediation, and, if necessary, judicial resolution. In the lawsuit, the County took the position that the law did not apply to it because the 2008 SDS never expired, meaning it did not need to be revised despite the passage of ten years. It also took the position that the Department of Community Affairs, the State agency tasked with overseeing the implementation of the SDS Act could not impose sanctions on the County for its failure to review and revise the 2008-SDS. Finally, the County also took the position that the Cities could not avail themselves of the dispute resolution provision of the Service Delivery Act since the 2008-SDS was not expired and sanctions could not be imposed. The County also claimed that, even if it were wrong on those two points, the Cities could not use the dispute resolution procedure because it was unconstitutional.
On the Cities’ request, the senior judge appointed to preside over the matter stayed the litigation in September pending the outcome of the Union Point Litigation, which was already pending in the Supreme Court. Notably, a primary issue in the Union Point Litigation was the constitutionality of the judicial resolution provision of the Service Delivery Act. Now that the process has been ruled constitutional, the Lowndes-County matter will proceed in court where the judge will have to decide whether the County’s remaining motions to prevent the use of the dispute resolution procedure have any merit or whether the County and Cities need to proceed forward as contemplated by State law to resolve this dispute.