Friday, October 29, 2010

Dispute between Fulton, Northside cities could be headed to court.

By April Hunt
The Atlanta Journal-Constitution

Six Northside cities are considering hiring an attorney to take Fulton County to court in an ongoing tax battle.

The cities are looking at hiring the law firm Smith, Welch and Brittain to represent them should talks fail on just how much city taxpayers should pay for county services.

“You may not have to pull the trigger, but you want to go into the fight with a loaded gun,” Roswell Mayor Jere Wood said of the push by the mayors’ group to hire the law firm.

The firm, which has four offices across the metro area, already represents Gwinnett’s cities in a similar battle against that county. The sides were locked into arguments for two years before ending up in court late last year. That case is ongoing.

The main issue in Fulton is whether the county can use general funds -- taxes that property owners in both the cities and unincorporated areas pay -- on roads in the unincorporated areas, all of which are in south Fulton.

In 2005, Roswell challenged using the money for unincorporated roads instead of on benefits for all residents -- such as libraries and the court system. That led to a formal agreement calling for taxes from special districts to pay for local roads.

Last year, though, the county commission reversed course and again began using general fund money for major roads countywide, prompting mediation and new fury from the Northside mayors.

The council in each city -- Alpharetta, Johns Creek, Milton, Mountain Park, Roswell and Sandy Springs -- would have to approve hiring the law firm, even on retainer.

The proposal calls for the cities to pay up to $275 an hour in attorney’s fees, with the payments split based on population figures. Mountain Park, with just 500 residents, would not pay.

Sandy Springs Mayor Eva Galambos said the Gwinnett cities already have paid more than $300,000 in their battle. She questioned whether the solution couldn’t be found in the Legislature.

State Rep. Wendell Willard, R-Sandy Springs, who is also Sandy Springs’ city attorney, has pledged to push for financial penalties for both sides if the cities and county don't come to an agreement. Galambos said that alone could work.

“There could be legislation that will cure this,” Galambos said, giving grudging support to retaining lawyers.

The Northside cities are expected to review the lawyer proposal and vote on a retainer in November.

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