A decision by the Lee County Commission to have garbage collection fees added to local property tax bills appears to be headed to the county's voters if the Georgia Supreme Court agrees that the board had the power to make that decision.
A Superior Court judge has already ruled in the County Commission's favor in its disagreement with Tax Commissioner Susan Smith, who has refused to comply with the commission's ordinance calling for the inclusion of the fees on the tax bills. That court decision has been appealed to the state's highest court for the ultimate determination.
The commission contends that the fee inclusion on the tax bills is the most effective way to collect garbage fees that it says are going unpaid. Commissioners say between $8 million and $9 million in uncollected fees have been written off over the past 18 years and that the county is losing $450,000 a year now in uncollected garbage collection fees.
But the decision has met with stiff opposition from a number of county residents who have taken an unusual approach toward addressing the issue. A provision of the state Constitution allows for a vote to be called to overturn certain ordinances if 20 percent of the registered voters in a county that has between 5,000 and 50,000 registered voters sign a petition calling for the ordinance to be repealed or amended. The group, Concerned Citizens of Leesburg, needs at least 3,477 valid signatures to meet the 20 percent threshold.
So, it was surprising to many at Tuesday's commission meeting when Chairman Ed Duffy announced that after the Supreme Court's ruling, the board would call for a non-binding referendum to be placed on the Democratic and Republican ballots for the July 31 primary elections. That is, of course, assuming that the Supreme Court sides with the commission in its ruling.
The call for the vote, however, doesn't appear to be enough to satisfy the ordinance opponents, who have vowed that they will continue with their petition demanding a binding county vote on the ordinance. Organizers say that document will likely be presented to the county's probate judge on Monday.
If the petition is successful, a new legal challenge could arise. The County Commission argues that the provision of the Georgia Constitution on which the petition is based doesn't apply to the garbage fee collection ordinance.
Regardless of how it plays out, if the commission's position regarding its authority is upheld by the Supreme Court, voters in Lee County will have the final say on the issue. If the petition is unsuccessful from a lack of signatures or because it doesn't fall under the constitutional provision, the County Commission has stated that it will abide by the wishes of the majority of voters. To not follow through with that promise would be political suicide for the five commissioners should the vote go against them.
Meanwhile, the county is coming up on the third anniversary of the embattled ordinance's passage in a couple of months. It's past time for this issue to be settled.