GMA has prepared this brief at the request of our member cities to provide guidance on negotiating the provision of county road services as part of local service delivery agreements mandated by O.C.G.A. §36-70-20, et. seq., the Service Delivery Strategy (SDS) law.
The legislative intent of the SDS law is per §36-70-20 "…to minimize inefficiencies resulting from duplication of services and competition between local governments and to provide a mechanism to resolve disputes over local government service delivery, funding equity, and land use."
The law further outlines required components of each SDS in § 36-70-23, "Each local government service delivery strategy shall include the following components: (1) An identification of all local government services presently provided or primarily funded by each general purpose local government and each authority within the county, or providing services within the county, and a description of the geographic area in which the identified services are provided by each jurisdiction."
Additionally, there are four required criteria that must be included in each service delivery agreement, one of which is: "§36-70-24 (3)(A) The strategy shall ensure that the cost of any service which a county provides primarily for the benefit of the unincorporated area of the county shall be borne by the unincorporated area residents, individuals, and property owners who receive the service. Further, when the county and one or more municipalities jointly fund a county-wide service, the county share of such funding shall be borne by the unincorporated residents, individuals, and property owners that receive the service. (B) Such funding shall be derived from special service districts created by the county in which property taxes, insurance premium taxes, assessments, or user fees are levied or imposed or through such other mechanism agreed upon by the affected parties which complies with the intent of subparagraph (A) of this paragraph.”
Agreement on how to fund county road services is a common sticking point in the SDS negotiations process. County negotiators often argue that all county-owned and maintained roads may or even must be paid for using general fund revenues, regardless of whether they lie within or outside incorporated areas, simply because they are "made available" to city residents. To justify this assertion, these negotiators point to a section within the publication entitled, "Charting a Course for Cooperation and Collaboration: An Introduction to the Service Delivery Strategy Act for Local Governments", which was jointly prepared by GMA, ACCG, the Georgia Department of Community Affairs, and the UGA Carl Vinson Institute of Government in 1997 following enactment of the SDS law.
The section of the publication in question is on page 10: "Some county services are made available countywide to all residents and, in many instances, nonresidents. Examples include services such as...county roads in incorporated and unincorporated areas…these services should be paid for out of the county general fund."
Asserting that this section should justify funding county roads, regardless of who benefits from them, from county general funds, is inconsistent with the intent of the law and fails to address funding equity/double taxation concerns. Equal consideration should be given to the section on page 11 which reads: "Does this mean that county services paid for out of the general fund, such as road maintenance, are not subject to negotiation in developing the Service Delivery Strategy? No. The way in which a county expends general fund revenues within a city is a legitimate issue and subject to negotiation."
Any interpretation of commentary about the SDS statute must be viewed in the context that the law is intended to eliminate double taxation. Furthermore, any guidance does not substitute for the actual language in the SDS statute, does not have the weight of law, and is not intended as legal advice to counties and cities. Any blanket statement that county road services should be funded with general funds fails to account for the unique characteristics of road systems and conditions in each county and city. The law recognizes this and in §36-70-20 stresses the individual assessment required: "The intent of this article is to provide a flexible framework within which local governments in each county can develop a service delivery system that is both efficient and responsive to citizens in their county. The General Assembly recognizes that the unique characteristics of each county throughout the state preclude a mandated legislative outcome for the delivery of services in every county." Therefore, the law requires negotiators to determine equitable funding arrangements based on county road usage in each county - and which residents, individuals, and property owners primarily receive this service.
Only major countywide arterials and collectors which truly serve and connect the entire county are eligible to be paid for by county general funds. Unincorporated area roads - dirt roads and neighborhood streets - exist to serve the unincorporated residents who live on them and are not used by all residents of a county. As the SDS law requires, if an agreement cannot be reached, counties must create special service districts, and that is an appropriate mechanism for maintaining unincorporated roads using unincorporated area revenues. Lacking agreement, the funding for such special service districts is limited to property taxes, insurance premiums taxes, assessments, and fees derived solely from those unincorporated areas and residents benefited. This is a matter of essential funding equity.
GDOT road system reports contain information about functional classifications of roads and road types and are an appropriate source for information about which roads should be deemed "countywide" roads and which other roads primarily benefit the unincorporated area. Dirt roads and neighborhood streets in the unincorporated area exist primarily to serve unincorporated area residents. Maps should be included in the SDS to clearly delineate geographic service areas.
- County road service/ maintenance is a service that must be included in the SDS and funding arrangements must be negotiated.
- The "Charting a Course" publication does not constitute legal advice and does not supersede or replace the intent and provisions in Georgia state law.
- There is no "one size fits all" solution to funding road maintenance.
- Road functional classification and real-world usage must be the basis to determine how roads should be paid for. GDOT data are a valid source for this information. Maps are the most accurate way to identify the geographic area being served.
- As with all services in the SDS, delivery of county road services must meet the test of eliminating double taxation and must insure that the primary beneficiaries of this service pay for the service - even if that means setting up a special tax district, as outlined in state law.