Peach County hires mediator for LOST negotiations

Unable to agree on how a sales tax should be divided, officials from Peach County and the cities within its boundaries agreed Wednesday to hire a mediator, according to County Administrator Marcia Johnson.

The officials -- from Peach County, Byron, Fort Valley and Warner Robins -- made the decision during their final meeting before a Friday deadline to decide among themselves how to divide the county local option sales tax, or LOST, for the next 10 years.

“I think everyone knew when they came in the door what was going to happen,” Johnson said.

The officials have been running out the clock for the past few weeks after realizing they were unlikely to come to an agreement. Byron and Fort Valley have stood firm at wanting to split 53 percent, while County Commission Chairman Melvin Walker has said the county won’t take less than 60 percent. Warner Robins, which has a small portion of the city in Peach County, also wants a piece of the pie.

After Wednesday’s meeting, Johnson sent an e-mail to the office of R. Wayne Thorpe, an attorney with Irvine, Calif.-based JAMS, to accept his services.

JAMS is a major mediation group with more than 280 mediators throughout the United States, according to the company website. Thorpe, who works out of Atlanta, has been with the company for 14 years.

According to the e-mail, officials agreed to pay Thorpe $475 per hour for his services, plus a $275 case management fee per party for the first 10 hours of mediation.

The cities decided they will negotiate as one team and, therefore, pay one case management fee. The professional fees will be divided among the entities according to the resulting LOST split.

Currently, Peach County receives 60 percent of the LOST, Fort Valley receives 31.5 percent and Byron receives 8.5 percent. The LOST generated about $35.8 million between January 2003 and May 2012.

Officials began negotiations June 19. Friday will end their 60-day period of internal negotiations. They will then have 60 more days to negotiate with Thorpe’s help.

If a decision still hasn’t been made by Oct. 16, the officials will enter an arbitration period in which an out-of-county judge will decide the LOST division for 2013 through 2023.

Walker, Fort Valley Mayor John Stumbo and Byron Mayor Larry Collins have said they intend to come to an agreement before they’re forced into arbitration.

State law requires counties with LOSTs to renegotiate the division of the one-cent sales tax every 10 years following the new U.S. Census report.

To contact writer Christina M. Wright, call 256-9685.