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Cities, county awaiting judge in tax arbitration
Judge will pick final plan
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The city of Gainesville and Hall County both say they are waiting for a judge to be appointed in their local option sales tax arbitration.

About 17 percent of Georgia’s counties are going through the LOST arbitration process, but there are plenty of qualified judges to hear the cases, even though this type of case is new and can be complex, said Judge David Emerson, president of the Council of Superior Court Judges of Georgia.

“We are busy,” Emerson said. “I can’t tell you exactly why they haven’t named someone.

“This could be a very big, complicated case, depending on how the parties approach it.”

Questions to the city of Gainesville about the status of the LOST arbitration were referred to City Attorney James E. Palmour III. He said the city was still waiting for a judge to be assigned. County Attorney Bill Blalock confirmed that.

This is the first time cities and counties are renegotiating the distribution of LOST revenues since a new state law took effect that requires “baseball arbitration,” said Georgia Municipal Association spokeswoman Amy Henderson.

Out of 159 counties, 27, including Hall, are in the process. Emerson said that these are new kinds of cases for judges and the more cities involved, the more complicated the case.

“There is a good bit of it going on and it’s fairly complex,” Emerson said. “We’ve never had to deal with this before.”

Hall County and Gainesville jointly filed a petition on Nov. 15 for arbitration after negotiations between the county and the cities of Gainesville, Buford, Braselton, Oakwood, Gillsville and Lula failed to reach agreement. Mediation failed after less than half a day. The redistribution negotiations were triggered by the 2010 Census.

LOST revenue is meant to help offset governments’ reliance on property taxes to fund day-to-day operations. How it’s distributed is determined every 10 years following a federal count of the population. As part of the arbitration process, an outside judge will hear the case. Each side will present its “best and final offer,” and the judge will choose one. The decision is final.

Emerson said his county, Douglas County, and the city of Douglasville had a judge appointed with no difficulties, but the sides settled before it went to court.

“The parties are still trying to figure out these kinds of cases,” Emerson said. “We haven’t had to do many of these before.”

Before arbitration became required, cities and counties that couldn’t agree wouldn’t have LOST collections, Henderson said. The county could establish a homestead option local sales tax and keep all the revenue, she said.

This tactic forced many cities to agree to negotiating distributions based on a simple population split, a 2011 GMA guide on LOST said.

“It puts negotiating on more equal footing,” Henderson said.

Hall County proposed last year to keep about 75 percent of that revenue, nearly the same as the current agreement. The county’s municipalities had said they wanted the distribution set at around 58 percent because of their individual economic impact. Gainesville Mayor Danny Dunagan said the cities have amended their proposal, specifically the percentage of revenue the cities would like to get, but he declined to reveal specifics, The Times reported in November.

The LOST judge for the Gainesville and Hall County arbitration will be appointed by Chief Judge Brenda S. Weaver of the Appalachian Judicial Circuit.

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