LEESBURG, Ga. — The county attorney in Lee County said Monday a call for a referendum to let voters decide whether to allow garbage fees to be placed on end-of-year tax bills is most likely not allowable under Georgia law without legislative intervention.
County Attorney Jimmy Skipper said the state Legislature is the only government entity with the power to authorize the kind of referendum opponents of the garbage fee legislation passed by the Lee County Commission are calling for.
“I haven’t looked at that particular legislation in a while, but I don’t believe the law authorizes an ‘advisory referendum’ of this type,” Skipper, a former legislator, said. “Georgia law does not, I believe, allow for the kind of law that, essentially, gives direction in an area that is decided by a local government.
“The only entity I know of that has the authority to put that kind of referendum on the ballot is the state Legislature.”
Opponents of the garbage fee legislation, passed by the Lee Commission on May 12, 2009 but put on hold because Lee Tax Commissioner Susan Smith has refused to comply, have been collecting signatures on a petition to try and force a referendum that would allow voters to decide the issue.
The Georgia Constitution allows for a vote to overturn or amend certain ordinances if 20 percent of citizens in a county with between 5,000 and 50,000 registered voters sign a petition calling for repeal or amendment. Probate Judge John Wheaton will determine whether any such petition is valid.
Lee County officials have said the Constitution does not apply to the garbage ordinance.
One of the leaders of the Concerned Citizens of Leesburg group, which is collecting signatures on the petition, said Monday the effort is still 600 names short of the number needed to force a ruling by Wheaton.
“We have more than 4,000 signatures,” Mike Sabot said Monday. “But in thoroughly checking those signatures against the voter registration list, we’ve found that 2,800 of them are registered voters. So we’re still out there working to get signatures. There are only a handful of us, but we’ve started going door-to-door.”
The group would need 3,477 signatures to reach the 20 percent mark, according to Elections Supervisor Veronica Johnson.
Sabot said he supports a call to place a referendum on the July 31 ballot that would allow county voters to immediately decide the garbage fee matter.
“Certainly that would be preferable,” he said. “(The County Commission) should let the public decide this issue.”
County Commissioner Dennis Roland, who represents District 1, is on the agenda for tonight’s commission meeting to discuss garbage collection concerns.
“This issue has not gone away,” Roland said Monday. “Everywhere I go, I hear complaints from people in the community, and the biggest complaint is ‘I pay my (garbage) bill, and everyone else should have to pay, too.’ Some of the things I want to discuss with the other members of the board are charging new garbage customers a deposit and picking up the (trash) containers of people who refuse to pay their bills.
“I think we need to discuss having the trash receptacles picked up and then giving the people who are behind in paying their bills five or 10 days — whatever the ordinance says — to pay. And when they do pay, we ought to charge them a deposit to resume the service. Until this issue is resolved, we need to set criteria for collection of these fees.”
Smith said Monday there is no new news on her appeal to the Georgia Supreme Court of Lee County Superior Court Judge James Sizemore’s Aug. 3 ruling that she must comply with the garbage fee ordinance and place the fees on tax bills.
“I talked with (my Douglas attorney) Mr. (Jerome) Adams before the holidays, and he said our case is on the calendar for January,” Smith said. “Hopefully there will be a hearing on the case this month.”
Meanwhile, Lee County Administrator Tony Massey confirmed Monday that a citizen had spent a night in jail after failing to comply with a court order to answer to past-due garbage fees.
“I want to be clear that this citizen was not arrested for non-payment of garbage fees,” Massey said. “He was ordered to appear in court and did not show up at the appointed time, so he was arrested. When he got out of jail, though, he wrote us a check for the amount he owed.
“We’re kind of in a holding pattern right now while we’re waiting for the (Supreme Court) ruling, but we’ve been working with people in the waste industry on ways to improve the service.”