By Tia Lynn Ivey
Leaders from the City of Madison and Morgan County government met last week for round two of Service Delivery Strategy negotiations. City Manager David Nunn presented a more detailed list of services for county leaders to consider revising, hoping for some tax relief for city residents. The City is unsatisfied with the current agreement, claiming Madison residents unfairly contribute over $1.5 million in ad valorem taxes annually for select services that are either primarily, even exclusively, utilized by county residents outside the city limits or unnecessarily duplicated by the county that the city already provides. The county, on the other hand, claims the services they provide, in totality, benefit everyone in the county, including Madison residents, and in some cases, disproportionately benefit Madison city residents.
One of the most contentious issues raised was city roads. Nunn pointed out that city residents pay county taxes that go toward the maintenance and repair of roads, but that money is only used on county roads. “We would hope you can recognize the inequity here, that city residents are paying for county roads without that money coming back in for city roads…it’s a fairness issue…they write a check for roads, but where they live gets no benefit. That’s inequity. That’s the very definition of it,” argued Nunn.
But county leaders were not persuaded by Nunn’s argument.
“Our position is still that city residents endure the use of the county roads as well as city roads,” said Mark Williams, assistant county manager.
“The consensus is we are not going to agree to that,” said Christian Henry, county attorney. “We have stated our position clearly and we disagree.”
“None of those tax dollars are coming back into the city…and the law is that you can’t tax the city for a service they are not benefiting from,” shot back Nunn.
“But there’s no rule that everyone has to benefit equally,” responded Williams.
The rough start set the tone for the rest of the meeting, with very little agreement reached between city and county officials.
The city also listed solid waste pickup, animal control, fire services, police services, and county administration costs as services from which city residents do not adequately benefit.
Nunn and Henry clashed particularly over the issue of fire services. Nunn maintained that the city of Madison provides fire services for city residents, so city residents should have some tax relief and should not have to pay toward county fire services.
Both Henry and Williams countered that county fire services frequently respond to city calls with medical assistance and need to do so.
“Are you saying you don’t want county fire to answer medical calls inside the city?” asked Henry. “That sounds dangerous to me.”
“That’s not what I am saying. Don’t put words in my mouth,” fired back Nunn. “If the county has a fire and they need us we are gonna go up there, that’s just what fire departments do, but those are extraordinary circumstances. We are talking about everyday services here and the city taxpayers pay for it twice because we already provide that service. So we need to look at it.”
After further debating some of the other city grievances and not being able to find common ground, Commissioner Andy Ainslie suggested moving forward on recruiting a third party to review each government’s case and make a recommendation.
“Let’s let someone else come in and look at it and give us some determination…something we can look at, so we can know how much we really are apart?” said Ainslie. “Sometimes you are not going to trust our numbers and sometimes we aren’t going to trust your numbers, so let’s take the emotion out on both sides and bring someone in to help.”
Nunn wanted more information about how a third party would be selected before agreeing to it.
The county promised to review the information the city provided them with and discuss it amongst themselves before meeting with the city again and before making any decisions.
“It’s time for us to go back and digest this and come up with what we think is workable, and compromises and then we can meet again,” said Williams.
“I don’t think there is anyone at this table that doesn’t appreciate what every jurisdiction does,” said Nunn. “But we do have to work out the details and we need to do it soon.”
The City wants to have a new agreement finalized with the county before June of 2017 as part of the comprehensive planning process. If the city and county cannot come to an agreement during negotiations, the city will move to the second phase of statutory mediation, and if that fails, the city will resort to the last effort: litigation.