Garbage fee issue headed to court

Photo by Carly Farrell

Photo by Carly Farrell

LEESBURG, Ga. -- The attorney for Lee County Tax Commissioner Susan Smith confirmed Thursday that Smith would stand firm in her decision not to include garbage fees on residents' tax bills as ordered by the Lee County Commission.

Although Smith had told commissioners she did not think state law was clear enough on the issue to compel her to add solid waste fees to tax notices, the commission voted at its May business meeting Tuesday night to have County Attorney Jimmy Skipper discuss the issue with Smith's attorney, Jerome Adams of Douglas, before taking the matter to court.

Adams said Thursday Smith's position has not changed.

"I don't believe the (Georgia) Code section has ever been construed by the Supreme Court as it applies to Ms. Smith," Adams said. "And even though the attorney general has expressed the opinion that he agrees (with Lee County's interpretation of the law), that's just his opinion.

"It will be interesting to see how the Supreme Court reacts to the Code section as it applies to Ms. Smith."

Lee County Attorney Jimmy Skipper had pointed to Georgia Code Annotated 12-8-39.3 as justification to compel Smith to comply with the commission's order. That section of code reads, 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 ... shall be authorized to enforce by resolution or ordinance the collection of taxes, fees or assessments due ... Any such ordinance or resolution enacted by a county government authority may provide that tax commissioner or tax collector of such county shall be the officer charged with the enforcement of its provisions."

Skipper said Thursday he's ready now to petition Superior Court for a writ of mandamus that will force Smith to add county garbage fees to tax notices.

"We'll file a petition seeking the writ of mandamus in the next few days," he said. "I talked with Ms. Smith's attorney Wednesday, and nothing came of it. The board said (Tuesday) to proceed with court action if nothing could be worked out with Ms. Smith, and that's what we plan to do."

Smith, who told The Albany Herald Tuesday she was refusing to add garbage fees to tax bills because she'd "been elected to collect taxes, not garbage fees," said she's now waiting to see what happens next.

"I understand Mr. Skipper talked with my attorney, and (Adams) told the county I would not be willing to put the garbage fees on the tax bills," Smith said Thursday. "They said they wanted a response by the 31st, and that's my response.

"The ball's in their court now."

Adams said the eventual outcome of the case could have a statewide impact.

"There are only about 15 counties in Georgia that use this method of collecting solid waste fees," the attorney said. "I understand that all other tax commissioners in the state are very interested in our case.

"The Supreme Court of Georgia does not always agree with the Legislature on matters such as this, and I hope this is one of those cases where it does not agree. We plan to move forward with this until it's heard by the Supreme Court. This is not going to be one of those quick or overnight things."

Skipper said the county will petition Superior Court for a writ to force Smith to comply with the County Commission's request, but Adams said if such a writ is granted Smith plans to appeal to the state Supreme Court for a ruling.

Lee officials sought to have the garbage fees added to tax bills because the county is losing hundreds of thousands of dollars a year on uncollected solid waste fees.