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Garbage fee deadbeats should pay up

Carlton Fletcher

Carlton Fletcher

Same thing I've always heard from you: Do as I say, not as I do.

-- Metallica

While I certainly have my own take on the Lee County garbage brouhaha, since I cover the county's government it would not be appropriate for me to suggest that either the county is right to create an ordinance that puts garbage fees on citizens' tax bills or that Tax Commissioner Susan Smith is right to refuse to comply with the ordinance.

But certain elements of the issue still merit discussion.

First and foremost, the Lee County Commission should be applauded for taking action to try and put an end to the nonpayment of garbage fees. Since the county started curbside garbage pickup, hundreds of thousands of dollars in fees have gone uncollected, most from citizens who, for whatever reason, have decided that they're just not going to pay. And this group of commissioners decided to do something about it.

Currently, around 20 percent of the people in the county who have their garbage picked up weekly are delinquent in making payments. That works out to more than $400,000 in uncollected fees each year.

The first time I heard this issue addressed at a commission meeting, one person involved in the fiasco made the incredible statement, "We should just let this go; it will cost more to collect these fees than it's worth."

Decorum kept me from jumping up and shouting, "Wait a second, if it's not worth it to try and collect delinquent fees, why the heck am I still paying my bills every month?"

It's amazing to consider that at $23 a month, there are people in the county who owe considerably more than $1,000 in back fees. That, ladies and gentlemen, is more than five years' worth of unpaid bills.

What's perhaps even more amazing is that reportedly among that group in the $1,000-plus delinquent fees group is a county employee who -- get this -- works in one of the county's tax offices. Talk about brazen.

I also applaud Smith for having the courage to take a stand on an issue about which she feels strongly. She's said throughout this ordeal that she does not believe she was elected to collect garbage fees, and she wants a definitive ruling on whether she can be ordered to do so.

Smith said Monday, "What I want from this, most of all, is a decision one way or the other. I don't think it's right, and I'm willing to go through (court proceedings) to get the answer. It may be that I have to add the garbage fees to the tax bills, but at least I'll know that the Georgia Supreme Court has ruled that my doing so is constitutional."

At the crux of this issue, though, are the people who refuse to pay their bills. They're the ones who should be drawing the ire of Lee County taxpayers. Because so many of them have simply decided that they don't have to pay for services rendered, one of Southwest Georgia's wealthiest counties (per capita) is forced to "do more with less" during each budget cycle.

Funds needed for infrastructure improvements, public safety and general maintenance go lacking because a bunch of selfish individuals refuse to pay $23 for one of citizens' basic necessities.

Most officials in the county have tried to low-key the fact that a Lee County man was arrested recently because he did not comply fully with Magistrate Court Judge Jim Thurmond's ruling related to the county's attempts to collect unpaid fees.

I think the county should do the opposite. They should be saying to the delinquents: "We're not keen on anyone going to jail, but we are going after the fees you owe. And if you don't pay, this is what could happen."

Lee County has no shortage of neo-activists who do little more than decry government involvement in their lives. Yet some of these latter-day "patriots" are among those who either don't pay their bills or criticize the county for trying to collect. Sorry, folks, this "leave me alone and let me live my life the way I want" is no one-way street.

You still have to pay your fair share as you go. And if you don't, elected officials have not only the right, they have the obligation, to go after you on behalf of those who do pay.

Email Metro Editor Carlton Fletcher at carlton.fletcher@albanyherald.com.