Tax chief has attorney in dispute

LEESBURG, Ga. -- Lee County Tax Commissioner Susan Smith said Wednesday her office sent an email to county officials asking the County Commission to take discussion of garbage collection fees off the agenda of Tuesday's commission work session because she was attending a state-mandated conference in Athens.

The commission did not agree to her request, instead instructing County Attorney Jimmy Skipper to write Smith a letter directing her to comply within 10 days to a county ordinance that adds garbage fees to property owners' tax bills -- action that Smith has refused to take. If Smith does not comply, Skipper said, he will seek a writ of mandamus in Superior Court on behalf of the county.

Skipper also told the commission that if the county takes Smith to court, she has the right to seek legal counsel her choosing at the county's expense. Smith said Wednesday she has an attorney who is looking into the legal aspects of the issue.

"There are a lot of issues here; it's not just about garbage fees," the tax commissioner, who won a runoff election for the office on Aug. 5, 2008, said. "For instance, taxpayer money is being used to pay the salary of a department created just to collect those fees, and it's still not getting done.

"I'm really disappointed that the commission would continue with this discussion when my office sent each of the commissioners, the county administrator and the county clerk an email advising them that I was (in Athens) and unavailable. I needed to be there for that discussion."

A copy of the email sent by Smith's office asking that the discussion of garbage fees be taken from the commission's agenda shows that County Administrator Tony Massey acknowledged receipt of the email at 3:54 p.m. Tuesday. Smith said Commissioner Rick Muggridge acknowledged receiving the email as well.

The tax commissioner also said she was surprised at comments in Wednesday's Albany Herald made by Leesburg Commissioner Betty Johnson after the meeting. Johnson, who served in the tax commissioner's office for 36 years -- 28 as commissioner -- before running for the County Commission, said she didn't "know (Smith's) reasons for refusing to follow the ordinance as she's been directed."

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

Smith said Johnson had refused similar county requests to add garbage fees to tax bills when she was in office.

"When I came into this office, Ms. Johnson told me that (garbage fees collection) was something she refused to do," Smith said. "I don't understand why she's changed her view now that she's on the commission.

"I also don't understand why she'd question me being at this (Georgia Association of Tax Officials) meeting. Ms. Johnson is aware that the convention is held this week every year and that, unless there is a dire emergency, we are required to be here."

Massey on Wednesday called the issue with Smith "an unusual set of circumstances" and said the possibility of the county taking court action against one of its elected officials "unfortunate if indeed it ends up happening."

But Massey said he feels the law is clearly on the side of the commission.

"It's really frustrating because, per the county attorney, the law appears to be clearly on the side of the County Commission," Massey said. "It makes you wonder why anyone would go to this expense -- expense that will be incurred by the county -- when we know with a high level of assurance what the outcome will be.

"If that outcome is realized and (Smith) refuses to comply with what would be a court order, certainly then you have a whole new set of legal questions. I know that's a position I wouldn't want to be in."

County officials are seeking a way to collect hundreds of thousands of dollars in solid waste collection fees that are not being paid each year. The county established a Utilities Services department to collect the unpaid fees, but the collection rate so far is at around 40 percent.

"We have to do something about the people who are, essentially, thumbing their noses at paying these bills," Massey said. "It's not fair to the people who do pay their bills. This collection method, which is used by 15 other counties in the state including Sumter and Glynn, appears to be the most efficient way to enforce compliance."