Higgston Library Issue Settled by State DOR
A difference of opinion over whether the town of Higgston has met the criteria to qualify for LOST (local option sales tax) distributions has been resolved with a June 10 determination by the Georgia Department of Revenue (DOR).
The decision came just ahead of a June 29 session with Montgomery County officials and the mayors of each of the County’s seven municipalities to discuss the next cycle of LOST allocations. The current continued from page
Joint County and Municipal Sales and Use Tax, (LOST), certificate expires on December 31, and the renegotiations must take place ahead of the County’s application to DOR to renew the certificate.
On January 6, 2021, the Montgomery County Commission sent letters to each County jurisdiction prior to required renegotiations for new allocations based on the 2020 census. The letters requested that the municipalities submit information validating their qualification for the funding, and all of the jurisdictions replied in the affirmative.
Each jurisdiction receives a percentage of the total LOST distributions to the County. The County, which includes unincorporated areas, receives over 50% of these allocations. A new LOST Certificate of Distribution must be filed with the DOR by December 30. Each jurisdiction has the opportunity to review the new proposed LOST allocations and to renegotiate the proposed percentages. Higgston Library Issue
The issue over Higgston’s qualification to receive LOST funds centered on the town’s library, and over the past few months a series letters between the attorneys for Montgomery County, the city of Higgston, and the state DOR dealt with whether Higgston meets the letter of the law regarding what constitutes a library.
A January 4, 2022, letter from Jack Downie, then the attorney for the City of Higgston, to Paul Cook, the Montgomery County attorney, addressed the issue of Higgston as a qualified municipality pursuant to Georgia law (OCGAA 48-8-80). Downie, in replying to a query dated November 18, 2021, from Cook on this issue, listed the mandates each municipality must meet to comply with the law. The criteria require that each municipality provide at least three of the following services: water, sewage, garbage collection, police protection, fire protection, and a library.
In his letter, Downie listed three services being provided by Higgston: garbage collection, fire protection and library services. He noted that Higgston “continues to meet the definition of a ‘Qualified Municipality’ pursuant to OCGAA 48-8-80.” A January 19, 2022, letter from Cook to DOR Commissioner Robyn A. Crittenden, questioned Higgston’s qualifications for LOST funding and whether the matter might even violate the law. “To include Higgston in negotiations and continue to make distribution of LOST funds to it would violate the provisions of OCGA 48-8-89. I question whether the City of Higgston can provide three of the six services enumerated in 48-8-80. It appears that fire protection and garbage collection are provided, but Higgston’s contention that a library is provided is what the County questions.” Cook noted in the letter to Crittenden that Montgomery County provides the only library recognized by the Office of Public Library Services. This library, located in Mount Vernon, is operated by the Ohoopee Regional Library System and receives annual support from the Montgomery County Commission, the Montgomery County Board of Education and the City of Mount Vernon. “Higgston claims to have a library in its current Service Delivery Strategy. However, from 2016 to 2019, Higgston reported to the Georgia Department of Community Affairs (DCA) in its report of Local Government Finances that the city spent no funds for operating or capital expenses for library services,” Cook says in his letter. Cook notes, “The County’s only intent in this matter is to ensure that we are negotiating the LOST distribution with appropriate and qualified municipalities to insure the protection and integrity of the negotiations.” Cook added that should Higgston assert that it does, in fact, have a “properly and lawfully formed library,” the city should be required to address the following questions: Has the city created its library in a manner required by law? Does Higgston make an annual appropriation to the library? Does the library have a Board of Trustees? Has the Board of Trustees appointed a qualified librarian?
Has the Board of Trustees adopted all necessary rules and regulations?
Has the library made any of the required annual reports to the Board of Regents?
The Higgston City Council Minutes of July 14, 2015, record that the Council adopted a resolution establishing the Higgston City Library. The resolution cites an article in the state Constitution authorizing municipalities to exercise home rule as the basis for Higgston’s ability to establish a library in the best interest of its citizenry. The resolution also states that “as public libraries of municipalities are exempted from state requirements to establish a Board of Trustees, the governing body of the library shall be a sub-committee of the City Council comprised of a member of the City Council, the Mayor Pro-Tem, and one citizen of Higgston. The city clerk shall act as head librarian.”
As the July 2022 deadline for beginning LOST renegotiations neared, the issue over Higgston’s qualification as a municipality was still up in the air. Out of concern for resolving this issue prior to the mandated renegotiations, Montgomery County Manager Brandon Braddy wrote DOR Commissioner Crittenden on June 6, 2022. He referenced Cook’s January 19 letter and the fact that The City of Higgston had not yet responded to it. The City of Higgston hired a new city attorney, J. Anderson Ramay, Jr., in May 2022, after Downie resigned citing family reasons. Due to changing legal representation, Higgston asked for an extension in providing a response to the claims made in the January 19 letter. In a June 3, 2022, letter, to Commissioner Crittenden Ramay points out that some of the remarks made in Cook’s January 19 letter did not apply to Higgston. Specifically, he notes the exemption for establishing a library Board of Trustees. He argues, “Despite Mr. Cook’s arguments to the contrary in his letter, it appears the city has taken the steps in the past to create a library pursuant to statute.”
Ramay included in his correspondence a copy of the Higgston City Council’s August 4, 2015, minutes which name the members of the Library Committee and a head librarian. He also enclosed a copy of the Joint Comprehensive Plan for Montgomery County that states that “services provided by the City of Higgston include fire protection, library, park, street lighting, and solid waste collection and disposal. Police protection is provided by an agreement with the Montgomery County Sheriff’s Department.” The issue of police protection was debated by the County but DOR determined it was irrelevant because the provision of the library was the matter in question as one of three services Higgston claimed to provide in later correspondence. Ramay noted that the Higgston library is located in City Hall and holds a collection of books, periodicals and newspapers. Most of the books and other literature have been adopted through donation by local citizens. He said in a second letter to the DOR Commissioner dated June 8, 2022, that traffic in and out of the library had been limited in the past two years because of the health pandemic, which also closed City Hall for a portion of that time. Ramay said in the June 8 letter that he understands the current Mayor of Higgston Jesse Ledford intends to have a computer set up with Internet access and a printer for public use. “I think one thing to keep in mind is that the City of Higgston’s population was only 232 people according to the 2010 census. Obviously, the type of library the City is able to afford and manage could not be the same as what a larger city would be. I know the Mayor and Council are proud of their city and library.”
In its June 10 determination regarding Higgston’s qualification as a municipality, Commissioner Crittenden stated, at issue is whether Higgston provides three of the six services set forth in Georgia law: water, sewage, garbage collection, police protection, fire protection or library. “The County acknowledges that Higgston provides both fire protection and garbage collection,” Crittenden writes.
Crittenden referenced the June 8 letter from Ramay that included a copy of the Higgston City’s Council July 14, 2015, resolution to establish a library. “…it is clear that the purpose of the resolution is to establish a city library pursuant to (state) Library Laws… the Department has no basis to question the proper formation. Additionally, while the Department recognizes the limitation of library services that are likely to be offered at the library, the Department finds no evidence that shows the operation of the library violates any provision of (state) Library Laws. Crittenden said that because the library conforms with state law and because Higgston also supplies garbage collection and fire protection, the City qualifies as a municipality under state law.
Mayor Ledford expressed relief that the issue has been laid to rest because the small municipality of Higgston is dependent on the LOST allocation. He plans to spend some of the funds for improving and expanding the library. “We plan to continued from page
reach out to the community, schools, and book clubs to help us build the library. This will be a running topic on our meeting agendas every single month until the library is built to our standards,” Ledford said.
Montgomery County Commission Chairman Leland Adams released the following comment: “Our role is to make sure all cities in our county meet three of the six criteria during negotiations to receive LOST funding. We are required by law to know that all municipalities qualify. If minimum requirements aren’t met, the County becomes responsible for rolling that portion of the LOST distribution to all property taxpayers countywide.
“As stewards of the county’s finances, it is our fiduciary responsibility to the citizens we serve. We appreciate the Department of Revenue rendering a decision and are pleased that all our cities will benefit from LOST. We also thank Mayor Ledford’s commitment to increasing the functionality of the city’s library in Higgston.”