AT&T Georgia Regional Director of External Affairs Courtney Brinson discusses a proposed cell tower audit with Dougherty County Commissioners Monday.
ALBANY, Ga. — Dougherty County commissioners will decide at their next meeting whether to approve the Board of Tax Assessors' request to fund an audit of cellular towers in the county, a process expected to cost between $126,000 and $140,000.
Tax Assessors Board Chairman William Ashberry made the request at the commission's work session Monday morning.
"The Georgia Department of Revenue requires an audit of all personal property in the county," Ashberry told the commission. "We don't have the expertise to audit the towers to determine what equipment is being used and how many companies are utilizing a particular tower.
"We're not accusing anybody of falsifying information (about the towers), we just want to get an accurate audit of all accounts."
Ashberry said Dougherty County has 46 registered cell towers, but staff had found an additional five towers not in the tax office's database. He estimated a total of 64 billable towers, including broadcast and corporate towers, in the county.
The Assessors Board asked the county to contract with Cell Tower Solutions to complete the audit, a request that was later called into question by Courtney Brinson, an AT&T Georgia official who said he spoke on behalf of cellular phone service providers in the county.
Commissioner John Hayes asked Chief County Appraiser Larry Thomas if the company, which had made a presentation before the board in September, stood by its pledge to collect enough money in back taxes to more than pay for the audit. County Attorney Spencer Lee spoke up before Thomas could answer.
"I don't think Mr. Thomas should answer any question about how much money we hope to recoup by contracting with a company to do an audit," Lee said. "I don't think there should be even the appearance that we're expecting a certain return for a company conducting any audit."
When Hayes said he wanted Thomas to answer the question, Lee said, "I would hope that Mr. Thomas would answer any such question the same way I did."
Lee later qualified his comment.
"Our staff cannot audit these towers," he said. "This is a specialty area. If we rely on staff to try and determine a value and we end up in court, we're going to lose. Every single time.
"If we want to prove there's a difference in (audited) fair market value, we've got to have an audit by experts."
Brinson said cell providers welcomed an audit, but he warned that the county should be careful who it contracts with.
"Right now, listening to this, I feel like I work for a crook," he said. "I shouldn't feel that way. No cell provider has a problem with you hiring an auditor, it's who you hire. And it shouldn't be one that works on a contingency basis. If they tell you they'll be paid based on their findings, they're going to have findings. Otherwise, they won't get paid.
"We have a history with this company (Cell Tower Solutions), which does work on a contingency basis. We just ask that you look at them closely. We feel like we're doing everything required, and we think a fair audit will show that."
Also at Monday's meeting, the commission got an update on downtown projects and plans from Downtown Manager Aaron Blair and a report on local-option sales tax revenues from Finance Director Martha Hendley. Hendley told the board a 20.5 percent year-to-year decrease in January LOST collections has the county looking at a shortfall as large as $361,383 below the county's budgeted total ($7 million).
She said, though, that energy excise and auto tax collections could make up for a large part of the shortfall.
Earlier in the meeting, Hayes read a proclamation recognizing the community service provided by the late Willie James Flood. The commission presented a copy of the proclamation to Flood's family.