TIFTON — Speaking at the Tifton City Council meeting Sept. 17, Mayor Julie Smith said that the city intends to defend itself “vigorously and aggressively” against recent claims filed by Tift County, which she said are without merit.
“We will not take this lying down,” Smith concluded. “We will move judiciously, professionally, and we will do everything within our power to make sure that resolution is received and that we come together as a community once again. We have an extremely competent and experienced legal team that’s handling this case and we are confident in a favorable outcome for all residents regardless of your address.”
In a series of claims filed against City of Tifton last week, Tift County alleges that the city is responsible for $22.6 million in damages to the county, according to court documents.
The county claims the city has breached contracts related to the water, sewer and solid waste joint funds and that it continues to do so.
“These breaches have caused financial damage to the jointly-owned enterprise funds, for which redress is sought,” the claims state.
The county is seeking litigation costs and attorney fees, and for the court to award damages for “attorney’s fees and bad faith.”
“The City’s actions and deceit were willful, with malice, intent to injure, and exhibited an entire want of care,” the document states. “As a result, the County requests costs of litigation and attorney’s fees be awarded to prevent such future behavior.”
The documents claim City of Tifton has improperly moved millions of dollars from the joint water and sewer enterprise funds to the city’s general fund.
The claim alleges this was accomplished by a number of ways, including via a service fund, bandwidth connectivity charges, debt service charges and rebate checks from ESG Operations.
The claim alleges that City of Tifton has transferred $17.9 million out of the joint enterprise funds into the city’s general fund, by way of the service fund.
A counterclaim included in the filed documents answers the recent city’s request for a judge to rule in the city’s desire to split the joint water system.
The counterclaim argues the city’s proposed terminating is invalid, citing an amendment to the Water and Wastewater agreement that prohibited either entity from terminating the agreement “until both parties established water service plans that were submitted and approved by the Georgia Environmental Protection Division.”
“The city did file a declaratory judgement seeking resolution to the long-standing issues we’ve had with the county over water and sewer services,” Smith said. “The county acknowledged that that was an appropriate action.”
Smith said that, while the declaratory judgement is technically a lawsuit, the city was only asking for a judge to decide which party is interpreting the disputed agreement correctly.
“We received a countersuit that included not just that, but a list as long as my arm of other allegations,” Smith said. “They, meaning the county, are seeking over $22 million in damages from the City of Tifton, the very residents that are also residents of Tift County.”
“Nobody likes to get in front of a judge,” she said. ”Nobody likes to go to court. Nobody lays awake at night and thinks, “How can we stir up controversy in this community?” That is not who we are. That is not how we function, and that is not how we do business.”
Smith said that all city residents are county residents, too, and that they all pay county taxes in addition to city taxes.
Smith also said that city officials will be making no further comments about the matter since it involves pending litigation.
Spud Bowen addressed the council concerning the litigation between the city and the county during the public comment portion of the meeting.
“First thing I want to say is that in 2005, I don’t think there was anybody on this council or anyone in management that was here,” Bowen said. “However, agreements are agreements, and I would urge you for the sake of economic development, the future of Tifton and Tift County — we have great schools and we have a great location — that you get through this as quick as you can and resolve it.”
Bowen said that he pays both city and county taxes so “I feel like I’m getting hit both ways.”
Update: A typo has been corrected.