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Our Views: Blowing in the wind
City, county relationships suffer with boards frequent changes in direction
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Members of The Times editorial board include Publisher Dennis L. Stockton; General Manager Norman Baggs; and Managing Editor Keith Albertson

You can understand if officials in Hall County’s various cities are a little reluctant to enter into business deals with the county government.

Last month, Lula became the latest to see what happens when unexpected winds of changing opinions blow through the county Board of Commissioners. The city’s plans for providing sewer service to parts of North Hall were turned upside down when the county reversed its position on buying wastewater treatment services from Lula.

To recap, the county back in November decided the best way to provide sewer service to a new industrial park off the Ga. 365 corridor was to build its own sewer plant. Then in February, it changed its position and decided instead to contract with Lula to treat wastewater in the area, with the county providing sewer lines to serve the area. Then in July, the county reversed course again, deciding it wouldn’t be paying Lula for the service after all and would build a plant of its own.

Seven months, three different directions from the county commission.

But Lula is just the latest of the local municipalities to find itself subject to the vagaries of changing political opinions.

Folks in Clermont certainly can commiserate. It wasn’t that long ago that Clermont filed a lawsuit against the county over what it felt was a broken promise to build the town a library using money collected through special purpose local option sales taxes.

Clermont officials felt the county had committed to locating the library in the town when putting together projects for the SPLOST vote. The county instead decided to build a library at a different location; the city sued and lost. But then the county, which had won in court, reversed its position yet again, with new commissioners voting to return the library to Clermont, though it has yet to be built.

Gainesville officials feel like members of the same club as well. City and county officials still haven’t reached a resolution to the Cedar Creek Reservoir impasse. At one point, Gainesville officials thought they had an agreement with the county to take over the operation, maintenance and financial responsibility for the reservoir in return for accruing ownership of it. Later, however, the county had other ideas, saying it had retained ownership of the reservoir, the property, the water permit and the right to withdraw water.

It’s not unusual for cities and counties to disagree over which governing entity has responsibility for providing certain services. It is, however, odd to see so many “agreements” that turn out not to be agreements after all, whether through misunderstanding of intent or political reversal of opinions.

That isn’t to say the county is necessarily wrong in the various courses of actions upon which it has embarked. Taken individually, the decisions made may be defensible, even if they have resulted in angry and confused city officials. But the pattern is certainly hard to ignore.

Part of the problem is the constant changing of faces on the commission itself. Of the current board, only one member, Billy Powell, was in office in 2006 when the service agreement at the core of the Lula sewer debate was approved. Ironically, his has been the most inconsistent position in recent months, bouncing from one opinion to another.

With elected officials coming and going, a county government normally would fall back on its nonelected administrative staff for guidance and consistency. But newly elected commissioners in 2011 terminated the people in the three top leadership positions all at once, so any ongoing stability from that corner was lost as well.

Sometimes the controversies that erupt between the various levels of government take on an unhealthy competitiveness, as though it’s city vs. county in a political death match to see which side wins rather than working together for a resolution that is good for everyone. Lost in such antagonistic arguing is the fact that residents of the cities are also residents of the county, and are constituents of the commissioners.

Meanwhile, city and county governments have been arguing for more than a year over a distribution formula for the Local Option Sales Tax collected countywide. An agreement on its distribution must be reached every 10 years, and negotiations that started last summer have yet to resolve the issue.

At this point it remains to be seen how the Lula sewer controversy will be resolved. There’s always the chance of another lawsuit, with taxpayers picking up the tab for both sides. And it’s always possible the county could change its mind yet again. It certainly wouldn’t be the first time.

In any case, it isn’t hard to understand why any local city officials might not be too anxious to trust the county to stake out a position and keep it. Past practice has shown that isn’t always the case.

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