Government press releases often provide reporters the basis for a story, but they usually aren’t the subject of a story.
They could be in this one, as recent and separate announcements of a settlement between Richmond Hill and Bryan County make it appear some things aren’t all that settled after all.
For starters, Richmond Hill’s press release, sent out Friday afternoon, is headlined “City of Richmond Hill accepts $3.5 million offer from Bryan County to settle lawsuit filed in 2018,” and in its first paragraph essentially repeats the headline and then states the city and county will partner on a number of infrastructure improvements.
The city’s release continues by adding the “county also agreed to stage an EMS crew in the city limits, something Richmond Hill has been requesting for some time,” due to the city’s growing elderly population. And, the release again raised Richmond Hill’s claims the county’s decision to adopt the same millage rates for residents regardless of where they lived was unfair to city residents and put an “unnecessary” $20 million cash reserve into county coffers.
In the release, Richmond Hill claims the county “has addressed this concern by rolling back its millage rate for all residents over the past four tax years.”
Finally, Richmond Hill claims Bryan County agreed as part of the settlement to put back into the general fund some $2.5 million the city said it shouldn’t have spent in the unincorporated areas of the county.
Still, the city’s release ends on an upbeat note by quoting Richmond Hill Mayor Russ Carpenter saying “The city looks forward to working with Pembroke and Bryan County to address the challenges of our growing community, the fastest growing county in the state. We have come a long way, and we have a lot of work to do together.”
Richmond Hill’s press release and subsequent coverage prompted the county to issue one of its own on Monday.
It was headlined “Bryan County approves agreement with Pembroke and Richmond Hill to implement new service delivery strategy,” and noting early in the release the agreement ends “disputes and discussions related to service delivery.”
The county’s release said it has agreed with Richmond Hill to fund up to $3.5 million in road improvements over a seven-year period, with the city paying 25 percent of the cost. The county said a list of agreed-upon projects includes improvement s to Brisbon Road and a walking bridge over Sterling Creek, and the county’s share of funding will come from SPLOST and TSPLOST funds.
The county also said it has entered a sewer agreement with Richmond Hill which will allow the county to use the city’s excess capacity to service unincorporated areas in South Bryan.
And, the county denied it did anything illegal by transferring about $1.079 million in 2010 and 2012 from its general fund to create a Water and Sewer Enterprise Fund, which has since been paid back with interest, the release said.
It then quoted Chairman Carter Infinger, who also responded to the city’s claim the county’s millage rate rollbacks were in response to city claims its millage rates were inequitable.
“This initial investment was not an erroneous transfer but instead a wise investment that benefitted both the incorporated and unincorporated areas and led to growth of the tax digest with the addition of housing, commercial, and industrial development,” Infinger said. “Because of the growth in the digest that was spurred by the water and sewer investment as well as the prudent management and leadership of the commissioners and staff, the county has been able to roll back the tax rate for all county residents for the last six years.”
Bryan County also disputes the city’s claim it piled up $20 million in reserves, saying the city is looking at the amount the county had in its operating budget in January soon after taxes were collected instead of in September, which is when the county’s general fund is at its lowest point.
The release said Bryan County tries to keep a threemonth reserve on hand, calling it “well within the recommended levels for a coastal community that remains under the continued threat of impacts from a hurricane,” according to County Administrator Ben Taylor.
Taylor said in September 2020 the county had $9.7 million in its reserve, and “this September is trending about the same as last September.”
It costs the county about $3 million a month to operate, he said.
“Having a cash reserve on-hand allows the county to further invest in infrastructure projects and leverage grant opportunities that benefit the community and provide for additional growth in the tax base. The growth stimulated by future county investments will lay the groundwork to allow for further roll back of the tax rate in the future,” Taylor said.
Bryan County also responded to the city’s claims it hasn’t addressed EMS service in the city, stating that since 2014 the county has increased its number of EMS units from three to seven and two of the units “were already strategically placed to respond to calls within the Richmond Hill city limits,” and the agreement “adds an additional unit available to respond to city residents.”
Finally, the county said the agreement reached on Service Delivery Strategy “resolves all litigation between the parties.”
“The county denied all claims in the litigation and no other provision of any agreement relates to those claims,” the release said, saying that comments in the Richmond Hill press release “about tax decisions of the county or accounting adjustments are misinformed or incorrect.”
As both press releases state, Pembroke was involved in the suit, albeit on the periphery as it involved service delivery issues and court-ordered mediation between all three governments.
Pembroke Mayor Judy Cook said Wednesday, she was glad the issue was settled and “now we can all work together to get things done for the good of the community.”
In a possible end to this story, there’s the question of how much the lawsuit cost taxpayers in terms of legal costs.
Richmond Hill’s total was $135,733; Bryan County spent $246,007 and Pembroke was out of pocket $7,800.
A chronology, of sorts
In August, 2018, Bryan County officials announced they would change the way they were taxing residents, ending a 2003 agreement with Richmond Hill in which its residents were charged a lesser millage rate. Under its new “tax equalization” policy, the county decided to charge all residents a rate of 8.8 mills – a rate that has been since been dropped to 7.999 mills.
That plan caught Richmond Hill officials by surprise, and the city filed suit in August, 2018, roughly a week after county commissioners approved the millage rates. That suit claimed the county breached a 2003 agreement giving Richmond Hill residents a 1 mill reduction in county taxes, among other things, including whether city residents receive all the services they should. It also said city residents already paid about 40 percent of the county’s taxes despite having only 30 percent of the population.
It didn’t play out in court, however, or in public, after a judge’s order resulted in the two sides agreeing to go into mediation in March 2019 along with Pembroke, which was also a party to state-mandated service delivery strategies – namely, what services are provided to what residents and by who.
You can read a lot more of our coverage on this issue by going to www.bryancountynews and searching for issues such as service delivery and lawsuit.