Tax chief faces Lee lawsuit

LEESBURG, Ga. -- Lee County commissioners told County Attorney Jimmy Skipper Tuesday night to send a letter to county Tax Commissioner Susan Smith directing her to comply with an ordinance that requires solid waste collection bills be included with county tax notices.

Smith, who previously told commissioners her office would not comply with the ordinance, has 10 days to indicate she has changed her mind or face a lawsuit in Superior Court.

"I don't know what her reasons are for refusing to follow the ordinance as she's been directed," Leesburg Commissioner Betty Johnson, who served in the county tax commissioner's office for 36 years -- 28 as commissioner -- said after Tuesday's work session.

"I wish she'd been here tonight to answer that question.

"If we have to take her to court, it's going to cost taxpayers additional money."

Skipper said if Smith, who was in Athens Tuesday night, does not comply with the ordinance and faces court action, she has the right to petition to have her own attorney represent her at the county's expense.

"I know you don't want to hear this, but I could not represent her in a case against the county, so she would have the right to hire her own attorney and the county would have to pay for it," Skipper said. "That's what the law says."

Commission Chairman Ed Duffy laid out the case for changing the county's method of solid waste fee collection. He said more than $400,000 a year in garbage fees is going uncollected, despite the efforts of the newly created Utilities Services department.

"The bottom line is, it isn't right for the 80 percent of the people in the county who are paying their fees to also pay for the 20 percent who are not," Duffy said. "We've looked at every payment method we know of, and this is the most fair way we can come up with."

Century Commissioner Rick Muggridge said the county is doing the right thing in adding the garbage bills to tax notices.

"At a time when citizens are calling for more efficient government, this is a perfect example of efficiency," he said. "This may not be the easiest thing to do politically, but I think we're doing the right thing."

Skipper said Smith had challenged the legality of the county ordinance changing the method of collecting garbage fees, so he asked for and received a ruling from the state attorney general's office.

"Since my legal opinion was questioned by the tax commissioner, I asked for a ruling from the attorney general," the former state legislator said. "It took a while, but the attorney general's office handed down a ruling that this is a legal means for collecting these funds. It's done in 15 other counties.

"If the tax commissioner continues to take her position, you as a board have options. You can do nothing, or you can ask for a judicial decision in support of a petition for a writ of mandamus. I would suggest the latter; I don't know of any other way to get this done."

Skipper said after the meeting he'd never taken such legal action before.

"I've represented government agencies since 1985, and I've never had to do this before," he said. "The tax commissioner will be given 10 days to respond to the county's request, and if she does not comply with the ordinance the county will move forward with its suit."

In other action at the meeting, the commission voted to take immediate action on a request to approve revised plans for the Forrester Senior Village development. The new design for the six-building, 50-unit senior living facility, meets more stringent Earthcraft standards.

"If we are given final approval tonight, we expect to close on our financing by next Friday," project designer Josh Thompson said. "If everything goes through as expected, we plan to break ground in early June if not the first week of June."

Commissioners also held public hearings on a request by Brijesh Patel to obtain an alcohol license for his Baps 4ever establishment at 1572 U.S. Highway 19 South, on Michael Yerby's request for a variance to build an attached structure on his home on Winnstead Drive inside a minimum 10-foot setback, and on Clayton Homes' request for a variance to build an accessory building at its 660 U.S. Highway 82 property inside a minimum 35-foot setback.

Planning and Engineering Director Bob Alexander said the county's Planning Commission had recommended approving the latter two requests.

Commissioners also heard a request for continued funding for the Sowega CASA (court-appointed special advocates) program, which is the state's largest. The organization's director, Brad Ray, said the CASA program's trained volunteers serve as advocates for abused and neglected children.