All the players were on hand Thursday as the mediation process for the service delivery strategy began in Effingham County.
The groups met in the Effingham County Judicial Complex to ultimately determine where the delivery area lines for water and other services are drawn for each of these cities and for the county. Currently, there is disagreement over where those lines are to be drawn.
Thursday’s meeting was the first session of the process. The deadline for a mediated settlement is Feb. 22.
Court-appointed mediator Robert Falligant said that in order to keep the process streamlined, they will address only the services that are currently being provided. He also was adamant about finishing an agreement prior to Feb. 22.
“And I think we can,” he said. “I think if we all work together in the spirit of cooperation, in the best interests of the respective communities, we can get this thing done.”
Falligant, who said he has mediated over 850 cases in the last 10 years, is being paid $300 per hour through the process. The total fee will be prorated among all interested parties. He also said that, unlike normal courtroom proceedings, he will allow parties to use cell phones and fax machines to cut down on time spent going back and forth with information.
The first meeting, between the county and Springfield, was held after the opening session ended. Guyton officials are scheduled to meet with the county on Jan. 27, with Rincon’s meeting on Feb. 1.
In an earlier letter to county officials, Rincon Mayor Ken Lee said, “The SDS is intended to guide planning and services in the County and the municipalities of Rincon, Guyton, and Springfield for the next 10 years. Since that extension was approved by DCA, the County has done nothing different; and apparently has no plans to do anything different.” The letter further said that Rincon City Council believes asking for mediation will be the only way that the city of Rincon can get “fair consideration” and the citizens in the surrounding areas get efficient services at a reasonable cost.
At Thursday’s meeting, Lee sounded hopeful about the mediation process.
“The mediation is, hopefully, necessary and a helpful step in being able to come to some agreement on this service delivery area,” he said. “I hope and am very hopeful that it will work and we’ll be able to come to some agreement during this process. We’ve got four parties that all have to be in agreement. The mediation process can be rather difficult sometimes, but it can also be very successful. Hopefully, that will be the case in this and when it’s done, we’ll have an agreement.”
The Feb. 22 deadline also is seen as helpful.
“It keeps everybody on task,” Lee said. “We know we’re working with a definite deadline, and there are some consequences of not meeting that deadline. And it could make it very difficult for all of us, so we all have, I think, a real interest in working hard to get this accomplished, and I think we will.”
Not meeting the deadline could mean a loss of qualified local government status under Department of Community Affairs guidelines. That, in turn, would impact local governments’ abilities to get certain loans and grants.
Subsequent individual meetings will be held privately. Once some sort of agreement has been reached, the process will be open again to public scrutiny.