LEESBURG, Ga. — The Georgia Supreme Court on Tuesday dismissed Lee County Tax Commissioner Susan Smith’s appeal of a Lee Superior Court ruling that a proposed garbage fee ordinance in the county was constitutional, declaring the appeal is moot because the Lee County Commission recently repealed the ordinance.
County Attorney Jimmy Skipper and Smith’s attorney, Jerome Adams of Douglas, had filed briefs asking the high court to rule on the case even after the commission repealed the ordinance on March 27 under growing community pressure, but the Supreme Court decided not to make a ruling.
“It’s a bit disappointing because we were hoping the Supreme Court would rule on the validity of putting garbage fees on tax bills,” Lee County Administrator Tony Massey said Wednesday. “There are somewhere around 23 to 25 counties in the state doing the same thing, and we were kind of carrying the water for those counties as well.
“Frankly, I wouldn’t be surprised to learn that the tax commissioner in another county plans to challenge the ruling. Because as it stands right now, the court case is hanging its hat on (Lee Superior Court) Judge (James) Sizemore’s ruling that the ordinance is constitutional. I expect to see a challenge like that shortly.”
The Lee Commission passed the ordinance, which would have tacked yearly garbage fees onto ad valorem tax bills, in May of 2009, shortly after Smith was elected tax commissioner. She asked for more time to implement the ordinance, and when the commission voted last year to move forward with the law in an attempt to stem the growing losses in uncollected garbage fees — losses that, according to Commission Chairman Ed Duffy, had surpassed $8 million — Smith refused to comply.
The county tried to work out a settlement, but when Smith refused, they challenged her in Superior Court. Sizemore sided with the county, which had to pay both Skipper’s and Adams’ fees, but Smith appealed that decision.
“I don’t have any regrets,” Smith said Wednesday after discussing the Supreme Court’s ruling with Adams. “This is just the process we had to go through to get to this point. I just hope this puts all of this behind us; I hope it’s a dead issue now.”
Smith said she did not like being portrayed as the standard-bearer for state tax commissioners.
“I did not do what I did for the other tax commissioners in the state (whose counties had similar ordinances),” she said. “In fact, initially I had no idea this would affect other counties. I did what I felt was in the best interest of our county.
“This was always a local issue for me.”
Skipper said Wednesday that the Supreme Court ruling was “not unexpected,” but he said the court challenges and ultimate repeal of the ordinance were not wasted effort.
“Understand, we did get a ruling that the ordinance passed by the county was constitutional,” Skipper said. “The Superior Court ruling (by Sizemore) is the latest ruling that was made in the case, and he did say the county had the right to add the fees to tax bills.
“We were hoping the Supreme Court would rule on the case because of interest throughout the state. I got a lot of calls from attorneys and especially county attorneys while this was going on, and I would guess that it will come up again. As for Lee County, though, the case is over. There’s nothing left to do.”
Massey said he expects the county to focus now on recently passed legislation that replaces the rescinded ordinance. That legislation gives county officials the authority to remove garbage receptacles of persons whose fee payment is 60 days or more in arears.
“At the end of the day, nothing is changed (with the Supreme Court ruling),” he said. “We have to move on. Now that the legal issues have been cleared up, I would expect the county to look at (the new ordinance) to try and improve our fee collections.”