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Going to court for deal will be pricey
The Brunswick City Commission's 4-1 vote Wednesday rejecting a tentative agreement on how to share a 1 percent local option sales tax with Glynn County has created uncertainty about whether a deal can be reached outside a courtroom.

One thing both the city and county can agree on, however, is if they have to go to court to resolve the dispute, it won't be cheap.

Brunswick Mayor Bryan Thompson said the city has a local law firm, Williams Litigation Group, on retainer for a flat fee to represent the municipality on most legal issues. But going to court to break the stalemate over how the city and county will share the local option sales tax isn't one of them.

Thompson estimates Williams Litigation Group would be paid anywhere from $15,000 to $20,000 to represent the city in court.

He said if the city decides to hire an outside law firm, the rate would be much higher -- anywhere from $40,000 to $50,000.

"There are very, very real costs associated with arbitration," Thompson said.

Glynn County Attorney Aaron Mumford said the county would also hire outside counsel to assist him in court but noted there are too many factors to consider to give an estimate.

"I would hate to speculate," he said. "A lot of it would depend on how long it goes. I'm salary, so there's no additional cost from me."

It's more than legal fees that are at stake, however. If the city and county can't reach an agreement and a Superior Court judge from outside the Brunswick Judicial Circuit is brought in to resolve the dispute, it's a huge risk for the city and county.

The judge will listen to presentations from both the city and county and make an all-or- nothing ruling through a process called "baseball arbitration." Basically, the judge will determine which offer to accept, and the city and county will have to live with that agreement for the next 10 years.

Currently, the city is getting 35 percent and the county 65 percent of the tax, which is estimated to generate about $18.3 million annually.

When negotiations began in May, the city and county hired consultants who made dramatically different offers. The city wanted to increase its share of the tax to 37 percent, leaving the county with 63 percent. The county asked for 81 percent, leaving the city with 19 percent.

Both sides refused to make concessions until they met in mediation on Aug. 31. After more than eight hours of negotiations, the county agreed to take 73 percent of the tax, and the city 27 percent, with the county also taking over the city's recreation programs, animal control and traffic light maintenance.

The county expected the agreement would be approved on Wednesday because three of the five City Commission members were directly involved with the mediation session.

But Thompson was the only city official who voted in favor of the agreement at Wednesday's meeting. The other two commissioners initially favoring it - Commissioners James Brooks and Cornell Harvey - joined fellow City Commissioners Johnny Cason and Julie Martin in rejected the compromise.

"The agreement on Aug. 31 was something we could absorb and live with," Thompson said. "It would not have even been noticed by 99.9 percent of the population."

Now that the agreement has fallen apart over concerns about the county's ability to provide recreation at the same level as the city, as well as the percentage of tax revenue the county will receive, county officials say there is a real possibility the dispute will end up in a courtroom.

Thompson said the prospect is concerning, and not just because of the legal fees.

"It puts the city in a precarious position," he said. "This is a scenario I did not want us to have to be in."

Thompson said if the county decides to go back to its original offer of giving the city 19 percent of the tax and prevails in court, every service and department in the city would face severe cuts.

"It would be absolutely devastating," he said. "We would not be able to function as a government at 19 percent. I'm nervous at this point."



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