Lee wins opening salvo of garbage fee battle (Updates with comments from Lee officials and attorney)

Photo by Casey Dixon

Photo by Casey Dixon

LEESBURG, Ga. -- Concluding his ruling "... The respondent is ordered to fulfill the duties imposed upon her under the provisions of the solid waste fee collection ordinance adopted by petitioner on May 12, 2009," Superior Court Judge James Sizemore sided with the Lee County Commission in its efforts to have solid waste collection fees added to county ad valorem tax bills.

Sizemore handed down the ruling late Wednesday.

"I am pleased but not surprised by Judge Sizemore's ruling upholding Georgia Law 12-8-39.3," Lee County Commission Chairman Ed Duffy said Thursday morning. "The tax commissioner (Susan Smith) has said she intends to pursue this to the Georgia Supreme Court, costing the taxpayers of Lee County thousands of dollars in legal fees.

"We would hope she would reconsider her present position and not pursue this further. In the final analysis, I believe the Supreme Court will uphold Judge Sizemore's ruling."

Smith, who'd challenged the commission's right to impose garbage fees on ad valorem tax bills and refused to comply with the ordinance, said Thursday her position had not changed.

"This is kind of what we expected all along, so I can't say I'm surprised," she said. "I don't know that I really have a reaction; it's just kind of business as usual around here.

"I will tell you that I do intend to appeal this ruling to the Supreme Court. I still believe in what we're trying to do, and it's my understanding that (Smith's attorney) Mr. (Jerome) Adams is preparing to file an appeal as we speak."

Adams, who is from Douglas, said he would complete the appeal in the next couple of days.

"There were no surprises," he said Thursday. "We've said all along that this is a ruling the Supreme Court would ultimately make. I respectfully disagree with Judge Sizemore's ruling in this case; my opinion on some of the case law he cited is totally different.

"We'll file a notice of appeal (with the Supreme Court), and they'll issue a docketing notice. We'll file briefs and the county will file briefs, and the Supreme Court will take however long they take to make a ruling."

Smith challenged the county's authority to impose solid waste fee collection duties on her office, asking instead that officials seek another method of trying to recoup what had grown into hundreds of thousands of dollars in unpaid fees.

The commission, however, unanimously agreed that adding the fees to yearly tax bills -- a method employed in as many as 19 Georgia counties -- would be a more effective means of stemming the losses. A number of citizens in the county, among them Tax Assessor Board Chairman W.F. Griffin, have vehemently opposed the method of collection.

"In light of Judge Sizemore's ruling, I think it's important that we clarify some misinformation that's out in the community," County Administrator Tony Massey said Thursday. "There's been a misunderstanding by some about adding the fees to tax roles. This is not a new tax -- I repeat -- this is not a new tax.

"What we're talking about is a fee that citizens are already paying. Our focus is to address the 20 percent who are intentionally not paying their fees. It's a question of basic fairness, and I want to repeat for a third time, this is not a new tax."

Griffin has openly renounced the ordinance and recently said in a release aimed at commissioners: "I am ashamed of you. ... The right, privilege and opportunity to appeal for reconsideration of a decision that adversely affects both property owners and non-property owners of Lee County was made a farce by your actions."

The state's longest-serving tax assesor board member's latest release offers what he calls a constitutional means of resolving the dispute.

"Our constitution provides for the voters to make the final decision on ordinances and resolutions imposed by local authorities; this we will do at the ballot box," he wrote. "Your support of this effort is essential. You will be advised of the progress of this effort and the action required as we progress through these uncharted waters for Lee County."

Attempts to reach Griffin Thursday were unsuccessful, but persons familiar with his efforts said he is considering a recall petition to have the ordinance rescinded.

Smith said she's concerned about the implications of the ordinance.

"I want to clear up a couple of things about this situation," she said Thursday. "When I first took office and this issue came up, I was told that I had to be in agreement with (adding the fees to tax bills) for the commission to pass this ordinance. I was new to the office, so I started doing research of my own.

"The more I researched, the more questionable the process became. I don't think (commissioners) understand the extra responsibilities that will come with, essentially, running a utilities authority out of the tax office. And we've had citizens say that their mortgage-holder would not allow fees to be added to existing mortgage payments. These are questions that will have to be addressed."

Sizemore wrote in his six-page ruling that, "This court concludes that the Georgia Constitution clearly allows for the tax commissioner to be assigned duties other than collection of real estate taxes. The Georgia Legislature has specifically included in these duties the collection of gargabe fees. ..."

Massey pointed out that Sizemore's ruling included case law that had to do with an appeal to the Georgia Supreme Court in "Board of Commissioners of Atkinson County v. Guthrie."

"This has already been adjudicated," Massey said. "It's something that has been repeated over and over: The county has the authority to use this method to collect garbage fees.

"We're pleased with Judge Sizemore's ruling, but there are no real winners in this. The only winners are the lawyers and the ones who refuse to pay their garbage bills."

Duffy said the commissioners decided putting an end to unpaid fees was preferable to raising taxes.

"This board has recognized the longstanding problem of garbage fee collection in Lee County and has taken action to address it," he said.

"The board is unified in its position that it is totally unacceptable for law-abiding citizens to be required to subsidize the customers who refuse to pay their fees for services rendered.

"By enhancing our collection method, it is forcast that in four years the county will add approximately $2 million in revenue to its tax roles. I think everyone would prefer that to raising taxes."

Adams, meanwhile, said the eventual ruling in the case will have statewide implications.

"There are a good many tax officials across the state who want this case decided once and for all," he said. "They're waiting to see what happens with us. This is one of those cases that needs to be heard; this is why we have a court system.

"But there's no question that Susan Smith is a very courageous woman for taking this stand."