If you choose not to decide, you still have made a choice.
The time of reckoning is almost at hand on the Lee County garbage fee issue, and many are wondering if Lee County commissioners have not inadvertantly painted themselves into a corner from which there is no easy escape, at least none that won't mess up the paint job.
A quick summary: Noting that the county had lost millions of dollars in uncollected garbage fees since curbside pickup started in 1994, the current commission sought a solution. After much discussion, commissioners voted in 2009 to add garbage fees to end-of-year ad valorem tax bills. Their reasoning: Property owners are less likely to ignore garbage bills if they're tacked on to tax notices required for continued ownership of their property.
The uproar against the plan started immediately, particularly from citizens who owned rental property and would be responsible for payment of garbage fees if their tenants proved to be irresponsible. The anti-garbage fee ordinance movement was also fueled by misinformation, particularly by those who falsely claimed the commission had come up with a new tax.
The issue reached a head when Tax Commissioner Susan Smith, an elected official, refused to comply with the ordinance. The county challenged Smith in Lee Superior Court and won, but Smith appealed that ruling to the Georgia Supreme Court. A decision by the high court, which could have statewide implications, is pending.
Since that time, the furor over the garbage fee ordinance has exploded. A group of citizens started circulating ordinance repeal petitions, seeking the names of 20 percent of the county's registered voters (around 3,377) in hopes that a rarely-used state constitutional provision that offers a means for the repeal or revision of certain laws might apply in this case. That group is on the verge of getting the required number of signatures, but it remains to be decided whether the law is actually applicable.
On another front, both the local Democratic and Republican parties have declared that they will offer a nonbinding question on July 31 primary ballots that asks voters if they think the ordinance should be repealed.
Facing the intense backlash of voters, the commission, spearheaded by District 1's Dennis Roland, has started discussing other possible ways of assuring garbage fees are collected. Roland has suggested, among other things, requiring deposits of new customers and stopping collection service at the homes of delinquent customers. Even so, Roland has insisted, "I still believe adding the fees to the tax bills is the best way to make sure fees are collected."
Roland has also said he can't imagine the commission, even if the Supreme Court rules in its favor -- which is highly likely -- keeping the ordinance in place if an overwhelming majority of primary voters is opposed to the ordinance -- also very likely. As for the repeal/revision petition, even if the required number of signatures is collected, County Attorney Jimmy Skipper has indicated he doesn't believe the constitutional stipulation is applicable in this case.
"If you were able to apply that law to every piece of legislation that was passed locally, you'd never get anything done," he said. "Local governments would spend all their time defending themselves against challenges from citizens who didn't like a particular law."
While opponents of Lee County's garbage fee ordinance have been most vocal, there is a less vocal group of citizens in the county that is anxious to see the commission stick to its guns. They reason that if, as commissioners say, the ordinance is the best way to assure that garbage fees are collected, then that body must do so to ensure that fee collection is enforced equitably.
Not to do so, they reason, would indicate a willingness to give in to the pressure of special interest groups and offer evidence of a board not willing to stand by its convictions. These people hint that the only reason commissioners would bow to such pressure is out of fear for their political future.
One thing has become absolutely certain in this ongoing saga. If the commission does indeed bow to the pressure of the anti-garbage fee ordinance group and repeal the ordinance, it had best have a workable back-up plan in place. Not to do so would initiate a return to the status quo in which hundreds of citizens are openly thumbing their noses at a legitimate fee required for payment of a legitimate service.
And chaos would once again rule the day.
Email Metro Editor Carlton Fletcher at carlton.fletcheralbanyherald.com.