Representatives from Richmond Hill, Bryan County and Pembroke met Monday in court-ordered mediation stemming from a lawsuit filed in August 2018 against the county by Richmond Hill.
They’ll do it again Wednesday.
The meeting, held at Richmond Hill City Hall, was not open to the public, but it is a court-mandated effort to end a stalemate over services between Richmond Hill and Bryan County.
Elected and appointed officials from both cities and the county were reportedly present, along with lawyers and the mediator, attorney Susan Cox of Statesboro.
Cox was assigned the case in March by Senior Judge John Turner from the Ogeechee Judicial District, who is presiding over a lawsuit filed in August by Richmond Hill.
The city is suing the county over its recent millage rate increase for city residents, claiming that residents are being taxed for services they don’t receive. Richmond Hill claims the county’s Aug. 14 vote to increase the millage rate on its residents was a breach of contract, and said its residents are being double taxed for some services.
Bryan County officials dispute those claims and others – including Richmond Hill’s assertion the county illegally collected more than $12 million from 2010 to 2017 and used the money to inflate its reserves.
County commissioners unanimously adopted the increase of slightly less than 1 mill as part of what they called tax equalization, in which all property owners in Bryan County will be charged 8.8 mills for “county-wide” services, such as E911, the courts, sheriff's department and EMS. In all, the county says there are 31 such services.
Richmond Hill residents had been paying a lesser millage rate since 2003. Richmond Hill officials maintain its residents don’t receive all the services the county claims it provides, such as fire and police.
The county, on the other hand, claims Richmond Hill residents have been paying less for the same services delivered to both Pembroke and county residents.
The disagreement over taxes and services between Richmond Hill and Bryan County derailed state-mandated negotiations over service delivery between all three governments in Bryan County.
Those agreements, known as service delivery strategies, are required to ensure taxpayers aren’t hit with duplication of services and are renewed periodically, such as when local governments update their comprehensive plans, according to the state Department of Community Affairs.
After Bryan County, Pembroke and Richmond Hill voted to extend the current agreement until February, Richmond Hill let the service agreement lapse.
That could have led to sanctions from the DCA and loss of state funding, but attorneys asked Turner to suspend the sanctions while the sides try to work out an agreement, and he did.
While both sides have blamed the other for failing to negotiate, leaders of both governments have publicly maintained that relationships between the governments. Pembroke is also a party to the agreement, but has not contested the current agreement.