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Board of Commissioners of Lowndes Ph-050 County v. Mayor and Council of City of Valdosta

Court of Appeals of Georgia, Fifth Division

October 21, 2019

BOARD OF COMMISSIONERS OF LOWNDES PH-050 COUNTY
v.
MAYOR AND COUNCIL OF THE CITY OF VALDOSTA, et al.

          McFADDEN, C. J., MCMILLIAN, P. J., and SENIOR APPELLATE JUDGE PHIPPS

          PHIPPS, SENIOR APPELLATE JUDGE.

         In this action arising under the Service Delivery Strategy Act, OCGA § 36-70-1 et seq., the Board of Commissioners of Lowndes County (the" Board") appeals from the trial court's order granting several defendants' motion to dismiss. The trial court dismissed the Board's claims for injunctive and declaratory relief on the grounds that they were barred by sovereign immunity and dismissed the Board's claims for mandamus relief because the facts of the petition showed with certainty that the Board was not entitled to any mandamus relief. For the following reasons, we affirm.

         This case involves the Service Delivery Strategy Act ("SDS Act"), OCGA § 36-70-1 et seq., and a dispute between the Board and the cities within Lowndes County (the "Cities"). The purpose of the SDS Act was to authorize and promote the "establishment, implementation, and performance of coordinated and comprehensive planning by municipal governments and county governments[.]" OCGA § 36-70-1. The SDS Act provides 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 process provided by [the SDS Act] is intended 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 local government service delivery process should result in the minimization of noncompatible municipal and county land use plans and in a simple, concise agreement describing which local governments will provide which service in specified areas within a county and how provision of such services will be funded.

OCGA § 36-70-20.

         The record shows that Lowndes County and the Cities operated under a service delivery strategy agreement implemented in 2008. (The "2008 Strategy Agreement"). The 2008 Strategy Agreement provided that it "shall become effective July 1, 2008 and shall remain in force and effect until reviewed and revised by the parties in accordance with the Act." (Emphasis supplied.) The SDS Act contemplates that "Each county and affected municipality shall review, and revise if necessary, the approved strategy: (1) In conjunction with updates of the comprehensive plan as required by Article 1 of this Chapter; (2) Whenever necessary to change service delivery or revenue distribution arrangements; [or] (3) Whenever necessary due to changes in revenue distribution arrangements[.]" OCGA § 36-70-28 (b) (1)-(3).

         On April 12, 2016, the Chairman of the Board of Commissioners of Lowndes County sent a letter to the Mayors of the Cities of Dasher, Hahira, Lake Park, Remerton and Valdosta giving notice of a joint meeting scheduled for the "purpose of commencing deliberations on the statutorily required review, and a revision if necessary, of our service delivery strategy" The letter also stated that "OCGA § 36-70-28 requires us to review, and revise if necessary, our service delivery strategy in connection with the update of our comprehensive plan, which is also required by statute."

         In June 2016, a new draft 2016 Service Delivery Strategy Agreement ("2016 Strategy Agreement") was prepared and circulated to the mayors of the Cities. The County and the Cities were instructed to notify the Department of Community Affairs ("DCA") either that the required review of the service delivery strategy had been completed and that they had determined that no revisions were necessary or to file a revised service delivery strategy with DCA, by October 31, 2016.

         DCA did not receive any such notification or revised Service Delivery Strategy from Lowndes County or the Cities by the deadline. Because Lowndes County and the Cities failed to provide the requisite notifications to the DCA regarding the status of their Service Delivery Strategy Agreement, DCA could not verify that the 2008 Strategy Agreement continued to comply with the Act, as is required pursuant to OCGA § 36-70-26. On November 1, 2016, DCA imposed sanctions on the County and the Cities pursuant to OCGA § 36-70-27[1] and notified the County and Cities that they would be ineligible for state-administered financial assistance, grants, loans, or permits until DCA could verify that Lowndes County and the Cities have complied with the Service Delivery Act.

         On January 23, 2017, the Board filed suit against DCA and the Cities of Valdosta, Hahira, Dasher, Remerton and Lake Park relating to the Service Delivery Strategy Agreement. The petition requested declaratory and injunctive relief, as well as mandamus relief against DCA and the Cities. The petition argues that the 2008 Strategy Agreement remains in effect, and that the County and Cities remained eligible for state-administered financial assistance, grants, loans, and permits. DCA filed a motion to dismiss the declaratory and injunctive relief claims under sovereign immunity grounds and asserted that the mandamus claim should be dismissed for failure to state a claim. The Board then filed an amended petition for declaratory, equitable and mandamus relief, adding Camila Knowles, as the Commissioner of the Georgia Department of Community Affairs ("Knowles"), and members of the Board of the Department of Community Affairs ("DCA Board Members"). Counts One and Six of the amended petition sought declaratory and injunctive relief against Knowles and the DCA Board Members in their official and individual capacities. Count Seven of the petition seeks mandamus relief against Knowles and the DCA Board Members in their official capacities. The amended petition also removed DCA as a party.

         On June 2, 2017, the trial court entered an order holding that the sanctions imposed on the County and Cities pursuant to OCGA § 36-70-27 (a) (1) to be held in abeyance during the pendency of this case and ordered the DCA to reinstate the qualified local government status for the County and Cities as of May 18, 2017.

         Knowles and the DCA Board Members filed a motion to dismiss the amended petition on the basis that sovereign immunity barred the claims for injunctive and declaratory relief and that the mandamus claim failed to state a claim for relief. The trial court granted the motion to dismiss.

         1. The Board first argues that the trial court erred by dismissing its petition for declaratory and injunctive relief against Knowles and the DCA Board Members in their individual capacities. Defendants, however, contend that the State is the real party in interest because the County's petition is seeking ...


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