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County, city due in court Tuesday

Richmond Hill’s lawsuit against Bryan County over taxes and services will get a day in court Tuesday, officials say.

What comes after that is unclear, though Senior Judge John Turner of Statesboro, who is hearing the case, could order the two sides to enter some form of mediation.

The suit was filed in August by Richmond Hill after county commissioners voted to equalize the county’s millage rate across the board for all residents. That measure resulted in a tax increase of about 1 mill for Richmond Hill residents, who were given the tax reduction in 2003 as a result of the “service delivery strategy” then negotiated between the county and the two municipalities, Richmond Hill and Pembroke.

The suit said Richmond Hill wants the 1 mill reduction for its residents reinstated until after the three sides decide on a new SDS, which is essentially which government delivers what services to residents.

That strategy is negotiated every five years, and the new agreement was supposed to be signed in June, 2018. All three governments are currently operating under an extension of the 2013 agreement.

In the meantime, the county said it’s unfair to tax residents different rates for the same services and claims to provide 31 “countywide services,” to every resident in Bryan County regardless of where they live.

Those countywide services range from the sheriff’s office to roads, elections, recreation and libraries, and are funded by taxes assessed to all residents, the county said.

But Richmond Hill alleges its residents are being charged for services they don’t get, including “public works, road construction and maintenance, bridge construction and maintenance, curbside solid waste collection and disposal, landfill, mosquito control, planning and zoning, engineering, building inspection, economic development, fire protection, general government administration and costs, building maintenance, employee health reimbursement, water distribution, sewer collection and treatment, soil erosion control, street lighting, storm water control (drainage), surveyor, traffic control, yard-debris removal, jail and other services,” the suit said.

The suit also claims the three governments agreed to enter into “alternative dispute resolution,” but before that process was complete the county held a hearing on its proposed tax equalization.

Richmond Hill also claims the county is illegally using and should pay back into the general fund some $2.1 million in taxes collected to fund services in the unincorporated areas, almost half of which came from incorporated property owners. It also claims the county didn’t budget or spend an insurance premium tax to reduce the cost for fire and insurance premiums in unincorporated areas, and that it raked in more than $12 million more in property taxes than was necessary to fund operations from 2010-2017. The city claims some $12 million was collected from property owners in incorporated areas of the county over that time, the suit says, and the county is using the money to inflate its reserves.

It says the city’s removal of the 1 mill reduction is a breach of contract and asks for a mediator, court costs and damages.

Before officials from Richmond Hill and Bryan County announced in September they would work together and then stopped talking publically about the case, each accused the other of failing to negotiate. In the suit, the city claims the county has acted in bad faith and been “stubbornly litigious.”

Shortly after the city filed suit, the county responded by claiming the city declined to take part in discussions.

At the time, the county issued a press release in which County Commission Chairman Carter Infinger gave the county’s rationale for the millage rate hike for Richmond Hill.

“Our reasoning for the millage rate equalization is actually very simple and hard to dispute – we must correct an inequity that, if left unchecked, would mean some citizens pay more than others for countywide services. As an uneven payment system is not fair to all residents of our county, it only seems right to adopt a rate that ensures everyone contributes fairly to the funding source that covers countywide services,” Infinger said. “Property taxes exclusively pay for countywide services, such as the sheriff’s department, courts, the county road system, elections, emergency medical services, libraries, recreation, tax assessor, tax commissioner and more. We cannot change that. It’s a hard fact: These services are provided to all citizens of the county and some are even established as countywide services by legislation or case law.”

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