Wednesday, January 23, 2013
Fort Oglethorpe’s abbreviated City Council and mayor sparred over agendas, mayor pro tem and self-imposed taxes during their first meeting of the New Year.
The city is two members shy of having its chartered five-member Council due to the death of Councilman Eddie Stinnett and the removal from office of Councilman Charles Sharrock.
The city charter requires a quorum of three council members and the mayor being present if any official business is to be conducted, which was the case Jan. 14 when councilmen Louis Hamm, Earl Gray and Johnnie “Red” Smith were present as was Mayor Lynn Long.
After opening the meeting, Long proposed the selection of one the three councilmen as mayor pro tem for 2013.
A mayor pro tem performs the duties of mayor when the elected mayor is absent or unable to serve. The city charter stipulates the mayor pro tem be elected by a majority of the Council.
Smith made a motion that Hamm, who seconded the motion, serve as this year’s mayor pro tem.
“I voted against it because it was not on the agenda,” Gray said.
Though the city charter states that a mayor pro tem be named during the Council’s first meeting of the year, it also stipulates that no action can be taken on matters not listed on the meeting agenda.
Agenda items, either from the Council or the public, must be presented to the city clerk before the close of business on the Thursday before the scheduled council meeting if that item will be brought to a vote. Matters not on the agenda can be discussed, but the charter makes it clear that no formal action can be taken unless the issue at hand was publicly advertised.
Selection of a mayor pro tem was an agenda item during last year’s first council meeting, and Gray had been elected mayor pro tem at that time, Jan. 9, 2012.
Is three a majority?
Last week’s 2-1 vote not only left the mayor pro tem issue for 2013 unresolved, it renewed questions about how the five-member Council will decide legislative action while it is short two members.
There is a difference of legal opinion as to whether a “majority” requires a majority of a quorum or if a minimum of three affirmative votes (a majority of the normally five-member Council) is needed for adoption of a resolution or ordinance. Should the latter prove to be the proper interpretation, all council members must be in agreement before any measure can be adopted.
Contention continued as the Council considered approval of an intergovernmental agreement regarding a special purpose local option sales tax referendum that will be voted on in March.
The soon-to-expire 2009 SPLOST earmarks 12.7 percent of collections for Fort Oglethorpe and 4.5 percent to Ringgold with the remainder dedicated to the unincorporated areas and countywide services.
The population for Catoosa County is listed as being about 64,000 in 2011. Of those, about 9,870 — roughly 15.4 percent — call Fort Oglethorpe home and about 2,850 — roughly 4.5 percent — reside in Ringgold.
During a series of workshops, representatives from the cities and county whittled a $160 million “wish list” to a $66 million list of “essential” projects. In recent weeks, the project list was further reduced to about $60 million of “critical” projects. The $60 million figure was decided on because that is the amount of revenue SPLOST 2014, if adopted this spring, is projected to generate over its five-year term.
Long said he was unaware that any agreement on how to divvy up SPLOST collections had been decided.
Due to this being the year when both SPLOST and LOST, local option sales tax, revenue will be distributed, there have been a series of public workshops for representatives from the county and its two cities concerning both optional taxes.
Workshops and negotiations
Since these are countywide referendums, the county is responsible for conducting negotiations for these matters.
The mayor, along with Gray and City Manager Ron Goulart, had attended the initial LOST negotiation meeting held before Thanksgiving.
Four SPLOST workshops, beginning with one Nov. 27, 2012, held at The Colonnade and ending with a Jan. 11, 2013 workshop, were advertised and open to the public.
Gray and Goulart each attended the first three meetings. The mayor did not, and Fort Oglethorpe Recreation Department Director Jeff Long was the city’s only representative at the final SPLOST meeting. Long is also an elected member of the Catoosa County Board of Commissioners.
The intergovernmental agreement was placed on the Fort Oglethorpe agenda for Jan. 14 prior to a final SPLOST workshop, but the county attorney sent details of that final agreement to both Ringgold and Fort Oglethorpe city officials immediately following the Jan. 11 workshop.
Fort Oglethorpe will receive $7.15 million if voters approve this latest iteration of SPLOST, about $38,000 more than in the 2009 SPLOST but about $1 million less than if the city’s preferred formula had been used.
Helping offset that percentage reduction, the city is gaining more money for sewer construction on the Westside and the same as previously earmarked for other sewer and stormwater projects.
Long voiced displeasure that he had not been invited to attend the public meetings where the SPLOST referendum was discussed, and Hamm said it seemed that “the county got us again” with a last-minute proposal.
City and county officials involved in the process said no one got everything they wanted. Negotiations had continued up until the last minute, but the cities needed a document to vote on during their first meetings of January. That is because federal law requires 60-day notice and state law 30-day advance notice of the March 19 election where voters will decide the fate of SPLOST 2014.
If no SPLOST plan is presented in time for the upcoming election, there will be no vote on the matter in March and SPLOST will end. Without SPLOST, officials say it would be necessary to raise property tax rates to fund projects such as building roads, bridges, sewers or buying police cars and fire engines.
Had Fort Oglethorpe not adopted the intergovernmental arrangement — which Ringgold approved with little fanfare — the county could have gone forward with a SPLOST referendum. If such a measure passed, Fort Oglethorpe’s share of the optional tax revenue would have been $6,768,000, not the $7,150,000 now proposed.
The County Commission adopted a resolution outlining the terms of SPLOST distribution during their regularly scheduled meeting Tuesday, Jan. 15.