Lee County commissioners Rick Muggridge, left, and Bill Williams converse before the start of Tuesday’s city commission meeting in Leesburg.
LEESBURG, Ga. -- Lee County Commissioners dropped an unexpected bombshell on attendees of the commission's work session Tuesday night, opening the door to rescinding the controversial garbage fee ordinance that has divided the county since its passage in 2009.
After completing items on the meeting agenda, Commission Chairman Ed Duffy casually said, "I'd like to read a statement." Then he stunned most onlookers by saying commissioners will rescind the garbage fee ordinance if the majority of voters ask them to do so in answer to nonbinding questions on Republican and Democratic primary ballots July 31.
"As everyone is aware, this board is waiting for a Georgia Supreme Court decision regarding garbage bills in the county being placed on tax rolls," Duffy said. "The board made the decision to place the fees on ad valorem tax bills because since 1994 the county has written off between $8 million and $9 million in uncollected garbage fees.
"We're still losing almost $450,000 a year, and we were looking for a way to make every citizen in the county pay his or her fair share, to stop the 80 percent who pay their fees from supplementing the 20 percent who don't.
"As everyone also knows," Duffy continued, "there is a group in the county that doesn't want the garbage fees placed on tax bills. They've initiated a petition to try and stop this ordinance from being enforced."
The Commission Chair said the board was prepared to take action after the Georgia Supreme Court rules on the legality of the ordinance. The state's high court is hearing an appeal by Tax Commissioner Susan Smith, who refused to comply with the ordinance, after a Lee Superior Court judge ruled she is bound to adhere to the commission's wishes.
"After the Supreme Court makes its decision, this board has decided to abide by the wishes of the nonbinding vote during the July 31 primaries," Duffy said. "We still believe the majority of the people in this community are in favor of putting the garbage fees on tax bills, and if the majority vote to do so we will reinstate the ordinance. However, if the majority are opposed to the ordinance, we will rescind it."
Opponents of the ordinance, who have led a petition drive to call for a special recall vote, said after the meeting they intend to carry on with their plan to submit their petition signatures to Probate Court Judge John Wheaton, who is authorized by the state Constitution to determine the validity of the request.
"We will verify and re-verify our signatures before moving forward with our plan to submit them to Judge Wheaton," W.F. Griffin said. "This announcement tonight will not delay us from moving forward with our presentation, which we expect to make Monday."
Mike Sabot confirmed Griffin's contention that while the announcement by Duffy is a "victory of sorts," it does not alter the group's plans.
"(Presenting the petition and signatures to Wheaton) is going to happen," Sabot said. "That's never been an issue. We dotted the I's with this thing before we ever even got started. We fully expect once we make our presentation to Judge Wheaton that he will order a special recall election."
In other action at Tuesday's meeting, the commission voted to approve an agreement that is required for the Department of Transportation to release $250,000 in funding for right-of-way acquisitions on the Westover Road Extension project and heard a report from Planning and Engineering director Bob Alexander on required resolutions that will clear the way for the state to move forward with construction of the Leesburg North Bypass.