LEESBURG -- With a Supreme Court ruling on a Lee County ordinance that will place garbage fees on ad valorem tax bills perhaps a month away, the first public chink in the Lee County Commission's resolve to keep that ordinance in place surfaced at the commission's work session Tuesday night.
With Lee Republicans and Democrats promising nonbinding referenda that would allow voters to weigh in on the ordinance during July 31 primary elections and an anti-garbage ordinance group claiming to be only "a handful" of signatures away from forcing a Magistrate Court ruling on an ordinance recall vote, commissioners addressed the possibility that the law will not be enacted during discussion at the board meeting.
"It's looking more and more like we're not going to get the garbage fees on tax bills, so I think we need to start looking at alternatives," Commissioner Dennis Roland said. "I'm hearing more and more that the people are going to vote against the ordinance, and even if it is a nonbinding vote, we'd look pretty foolish going against the will of the people. We were elected to serve them.
"I still say (placing fees on ad valorem tax bills) is the best way to collect the fees, but it's becoming more obvious that the people don't want that."
The issue came to a head when Tax Commissioner Susan Smith refused to comply with the ordinance, passed by the commission in 2009. A Lee Superior Court judge ruled that Smith must comply with the ordinance, but she appealed the ruling to the State Supreme Court. The higher court's ruling is pending.
Roland also suggested that the county charge new cutsomers a deposit fee as a way to cut down on nonpayment and said that hardship exemptions should be considered for persons unable to pay the (current) $23-per-month fee.
"I know some people try to get out of paying their bills, but we have people in the county who aren't able to pay that aren't looking for a handout," Roland said. "For people who can't pay but are able to work, why can't we look into letting them work for a few hours each month as a way to pay their bills?"
Commissioner Bill Williams said he too favors granting hardship exemptions on a limited basis.
"There's no sense in trying to take these people to court when it's clear they can't pay," he said. "We should not be trying to take what these folks do have."
Commissioner Rick Muggridge warned that granting exemptions would not ease the tax burden.
"I don't want to sound like 'Mr. Potter' here, but if you take the tax burden away from some people, that burden is going to be shifted to someone else," he said. "I'm not saying I'm opposed (to hardship exemptions), but we have to keep that in mind."
Commission Chairmen Ed Duffy reminded the board and members of the audience that the garbage fee ordinance was passed to try and stop rampant abuse of the current system.
"This board, I want to remind everyone, is the first to tackle the garbage fee issue since 1994," he said. "Since that time, in excess of $8 million to $9 million in debt has been written off. It's just not fair to the people who are paying their bills."
In other action, the commission, at the suggestion of County Administrator Tony Massey, moved up a vote on proposals to approve lighting for the parking lot at the new Oakland Library/Conference Center off U.S. Highway 82. Massey said one proposal called for more decorative lights at a cost of $115,000, while the other called for "functional" lights at a cost of $65,000.
"I think we must continue to be cost-conscious with taxpayer money, so I am recommending that we approve the $65,000 option," Williams said.
The motion was unanimously approved.