Sandy Springs Mayor Rusty Paul speaks with Fulton County Commissioner Liz Hausmann after the LOST Town Hall held in Roswell. Hausmann was the only county commissioner to attend. (Bob Pepalis)

Fulton County and its 15 cities were not only far apart on how local option sales tax revenue should be distributed, but also physically separated as the Board of Commissioners would not agree to an open, public session.

The cities and the county had their first day of mediation on Sept. 23 at the Georgia Municipal Association’s offices in Atlanta with Berry Fleming, a former Columbia County Commission chairman and attorney whose firm has represented four counties and four cities.

At the end of the day, Sandy Springs Mayor Rusty Paul said the cities were encouraged. Paul, a member of the cities’ negotiation team, said the cities would be prepared with a response to the county’s last counteroffer at the next mediation session on Oct. 7.

The cities made their opening statement in a public, live-streamed session before going into recess as Fleming took their message to the Fulton Commissioners on the county’s negotiating team who were in a separate conference room. During the mediation session that began well after its scheduled 10 a.m. start and ended at 4:30 p.m., only Fleming’s explanation of counteroffers from the county were live-streamed after that. Deliberations by the mayors and their staff members were not live-streamed to the public.

“Apparently, we are at a posture where they are not willing to come into the room and have a public discussion about opening statements and opening positions for mediation but would rather do that in private,” Andy Welch, a lawyer representing the cities said in an opening statement. “So we again find ourselves within a public discussion amongst public entities duly elected within this county discussing a topic that is for public consumption. It impacts every single taxpayer in the county.”

Welch said the private negotiation discussions failed, which is why the cities and county are at mediation.

The cities offered the county an additional $51 million to cover the healthcare services, according to a news release shared during the mediation session. The county wants an increase of $380 million in sales tax revenue without offering any details on how the county would spend that money, the release said. That would come at the expense of city taxpayers.

If the sales tax expires, which would happen if an agreement isn’t reached by Dec. 30, the cities and counties would lose at least $3.8 billion over the next 10 years, Welch said. At least $1.8 billion of that comes from people outside of the county.

The cities presented their case to the public in a town hall held in Roswell on Sept. 21. A similar town hall will be held in College Park on Sept. 28 to reach residents in the southern half of the county.

The last counteroffer from the county to the cities came at 4 p.m. The county’s current distribution share of 4.98% would go up to 7% in 2023, increasing 1% for each of the next three years, then hit 14% and 18% before rising to 19% for the last 4 years.

The distribution must be renegotiated every 10 years according to state law.

Fleming said the commissioners acknowledge problems several of the cities have with the millage rate, including Sandy Springs.

Bob Pepalis covers Sandy Springs for Rough Draft Atlanta and Reporter Newspapers.