Lee tax chief says no to garbage fees

Photo by Carly Farrell

Photo by Carly Farrell

LEESBURG, Ga. -- Lee County Tax Commissioner Susan Smith has drawn a line in the sand in her showdown with the Lee County Commission, and she said Tuesday she's prepared to take "whatever steps necessary" to determine if state law mandates that her office add garbage collection fees to tax bills as ordered by the commission.

Smith was at a state-required meeting in Athens on May 10 when the Lee Commission handed down an order that the tax commissioner's office add tax collection fees to county citizens' yearly tax notices.

Smith told The Albany Herald the next day she did not intend to follow the mandate.

After meeting with Douglas attorney Jerome Adams Monday, Smith said her resolve has not been altered.

"I was elected by the people of Lee County to collect taxes, not garbage fees," Smith said Tuesday morning. "Despite what (county officials) are saying, I don't believe it's clear that they have the right to alter the duties of a constitutionally-elected official.

"I am taking steps to clear that up, and I am willing to do whatever it takes to get it cleared up."

Lee County Attorney Jimmy Skipper told the commission at its May 10 meeting that Georgia law requires the county to pay for Smith's legal counsel if she chooses to challenge the board's order. Skipper said Tuesday morning he expects the commission to give him the OK to move forward with the next step in the legal process.

"The 10 days we gave her to decide whether or not she would adhere to the (commission's) order is up, and she did not agree," Skipper said. "The next step in the process is to seek a petition in Superior Court asking for a writ of mandamus (which would require Smith to meet the commission's requirement). The judge will decide whether to issue the writ or not.

"I don't want to try this in public, but I believe state law is pretty clear on this matter. I've also gotten a ruling from the state attorney general's office that the county commission can require county officials to carry out certain duties. The law is what the law says."

Skipper pointed to Georgia Code Annotated 12-8-39.3, which states, in part: "Any city, county or authority which operates a solid waste handling facility or provides solid waste collection services or both and which levies and collects taxes, fees or assessments to accomplish the purposes of this part shall be further authorized to enforce by ordinance or resolution the collection of taxes, fees or assessments due a city, county or authority in the same manner as authorized by law for the enforcement of the collection and payment of state taxes, fees or assessments. Any such ordinance or resolution enacted by a county governing authority may provide that tax commissioner or tax collector of such county shall be the officer charged with the enforcement of its provisions."

Smith, who was elected in 2008 to serve in the office vacated by long-time tax commissioner Betty Johnson when Johnson stepped down to run (successfully) for a seat on the County Commission, said the garbage collection issue had been plaguing the county before she took office.

"I'd heard about it before I even decided to run for office, so when I was elected I asked Ms. Betty (Johnson) her opinion," Smith said. "She told me she'd refused to consider (adding the garbage bills to tax bills), saying it's something I wouldn't want to get into.

"(Former county administrator) Alan Ours told me in 2009 that the county was ready to move that responsibility into our office, and I asked if the county would give me some time because I had just moved into the office and I didn't feel the law was clear on the matter.

Things died down until (two weeks ago), when (commission chairman) Mr. (Ed) Duffy and (county administrator) Mr. (Tony) Massey came by and told me the county had voted to move the process forward."

Johnson, who was elected to represent the county's Leesburg District, said Tuesday the matter of adding garbage fees to tax notices was brought up before she ended her 36-year term in the tax commissioner's office, but the timing of the proposal ended talk of the action at that time.

"I was first approached by Alan Ours about this issue (in 2008), and I did tell him it was something I didn't want to do," Johnson said. "But the reason I told him that is that I was getting ready to retire. I figured it would be better to make a change like that with somebody new in place.

"There had been no ordinance drawn up by the County Commission at that time, and when I mentioned to Mr. Ours that I planned to retire the issue was dropped. I didn't hear anything else about it. If I'd stayed on (as tax commissioner) and they'd told me that's what they wanted me to do, I probably would have done it, whether I wanted to or not."

Over the last several years, Lee County has fallen hundreds of thousands of dollars behind in garbage collection fees. At the end of 2009, the county shifted responsibility for collection of those fees to its Utilities Services Department.

Utilities Services, through its own efforts and through the courts, has been able to collect some 40 percent of uncollected fees, but new delinquencies and the inability to collect the majority of the long-past-due fees have left a staggering unpaid balance now well past a half-million dollars.

Smith said she has trouble understanding how, given the budget of Utilities Services, the past-due fees remain uncollected.

"Utilities Services has a budget of more than $2 million and a director (LeClaire Bryan) who's being paid more than $58,000 just to collect these fees," Smith said. "Our tax money is paying that office to collect garbage fees -- responsibility for billing was even moved from that office to another to make it easier -- and I'd like to know why that office isn't meeting its responsibilities.

"I also wonder why the county hasn't looked at having a company like Delinquent Tax Services of Monroe collect the past due fees. We use them in our office, and it doesn't cost anything up front. They attach their fee to the bill, and if people don't pay they attach a lien on the property. That gets people's attention."

Massey maintained Tuesday that the commission continues to believe the proposed collection method is best for the county.

"The more research we've done, the more apparent it's become that this is the best way to collect those delinquent fees," he said. "It seemed a logical move to make, and we'd hoped that the tax commissioner would see it the way we do.

"Unfortunately, she's taken a different position."

Smith, meanwhile, says she only wants clarity.

"We need to be clear on the law in this matter," she said. "As tax commissioner, I was elected to collect taxes, and that's what I do. I hope taxpayers realize that what I'm trying to do is make sure the law clarifies the duty of this constitutional office.

"I do know that the day this story came out in the paper, we started getting calls and people were in here all day long telling us they were upset with this. There are some people who will pay their bills no matter what, but for some (the change in collection method) would turn into a struggle. Those are the people we don't need to forget."