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Ruling on Lee garbage fees expected soon

LEESBURG -- The fate of Lee County's controversial garbage fee collection ordinance is in the hands of Southwest Judicial Circuit Superior Court Judge James Sizemore.

Sizemore confirmed Monday that he had received all briefs pertinent to the case from both Lee County and Lee Tax Commissioner Susan Smith. He said he expects to make a decision on the case "as early as this week."

"I don't want to make any comment on the particulars of this case other than to say that I do have all of the briefs from both parties and I received all of them during the time schedule that I set," Sizemore said Monday. "I expect to make my ruling based on these briefs. I plan to issue a written ruling; I don't see the need for another court hearing."

Asked if the statewide implications of his ruling will weigh on his decision, Sizemore said it would not.

"What I will do in this case is what I always try to do," he said. "I will follow the law."

Lee County Attorney Jimmy Skipper filed a petition in Lee Superior Court seeking a writ of mandamus that would require Smith to add garbage collection fees to Lee citizens' yearly ad valorem tax bills. The court action followed Smith's notice that she did not intend to comply with the ordinance.

Smith said Monday she's not second-guessed her decision to challenge the ordinance.

"I looked at this as a taxpayer first, and it's something I felt like I had to do so that I could lay my head down at night," she said. "(Smith's attorney) Mr. (Jerome) Adams has cautioned me not to anticipate a ruling in our favor at this level, but I'm hoping for the best.

"I've gotten tremendous support in the community, and I've tried to just put things out of my mind and work hard. Regardless of how things turn out, I won't feel like this has been for nothing. I'm just pleased that a decision will be made on this once and for all."

Skipper, meanwhile, said the county will wait for Sizemore's ruling before considering further action.

"Everyone's done what they were supposed to do according to the timetable set by Judge Sizemore," the county's attorney said Monday. "Both sides presented the facts of the case to the judge at the first hearing (held June 21), so I would expect his ruling to be based on that hearing and on the briefs."

Lee County Administrator Tony Massey said Monday "nothing's changed" in the case, but he praised Skipper for his efforts on the county's behalf.

"I'd have to say that (Skipper) did an excellent job of representing the county's interests in this case," Massey said.

As Lee officials and taxpayers await the outcome of the case, The Herald confirmed Monday that a Lee citizen recently became the first person to spend time in jail for failure to respond to Magistrate Court Judge Jim Thurmond's orders pertaining to a garbage collection fee case brought before him.

Skipper pointed out, though, that the individual -- whose name was not made available Monday -- had not been arrested for failure to pay his past-due garbage fees.

"There is a distinction," the county attorney said. "I'm not familiar with the specifics of this case, but the judge would not have had anyone arrested for failure to pay his past-due fees. He would have had him arrested for not following orders, in essence, for contempt of court.

"The way this process works is the county files a petition seeking past-due fees, and if they get a favorable judgment, they attempt to collect fees through garnishment of wages. In order to do this, the law requires (the county) to submit a list of questions that the person must fill out. If the person who owes the fees ignores the lawsuit, ignores the judge's ruling or fails to complete the interrogatories, he could be held in contempt of court. That's what happened here."

Both Massey and Utility Services Manager LeClaire Bryan said Monday the county had no interest in seeing citizens jailed for failure to pay uncollected fees.

"As we've made very clear, if we are unable to collect past-due fees, we are taking the people who owe them to court," Massey said. "Once it gets to that stage, it's out of our hands. This is the first time out of hundreds of (court) filings where anyone has been arrested. But this person was arrested because he did not follow the judge's orders.

"We've made it clear to our citizens that we will seek these unpaid fees. Obviously, it is in their best interest to respond to (Thurmond's) orders."