Fulton County’s Authority to Raise Property Tax Heads to Court
(APN) ATLANTA — In a fight between north Fulton County and Fulton County Government that has been going for many decades, the members of the Fulton County House Republican caucus–plus former State Rep. Ed Lindsey (R-Atlanta)–are suing Fulton County for voting to raise the millage rate, or property tax rate, in Fulton County by some 17 percent on August 06, 2014.
The millage rate will cost a homeowner with a 250,000 dollar home approximately 140 dollars more a year in taxes. For those homeowners who have homes assessed at less than 150,000 dollars, the increase will be minimal if at all, especially due to existing homestead exemptions.
Because the millage increase will disproportionately be sustained by upper-income households in Fulton County, to some, is is considered a progressive tax. To others, it is seen as contrary to Georgia law.
As previously reported by Atlanta Progressive News, in 2013, the Legislature passed HB 604, legislation by State Rep. Jan Jones (R-Milton), which suspended any proceedings by the Fulton County Board of Commissioners to increase the ad valorem millage rate in 2013 or 2014.
But at its June 19, 2013 Meeting, adopted an ordinance pursuant to the Home Rule Act, part of the Georgia Constitution, which allows a county to repeal or amend virtually any law imposed upon the county by the state legislature.
Those who are suing the county include Speaker Pro Tem Jan Jones, former Rep. Lindsey, Rep. Harry Geisinger (R-Roswell), Rep. Lynne Riley (R-Johns Creek), Rep. Joseph Wilkinson (R-Atlanta), Rep. Charles “Chuck” Martin (R-Alpharetta), and Rep. Wendell Willard (R-Sandy Springs).
Fulton County, along with all its current Commissioners, John Eaves (current District 1), Rob Pitts (District 2), Liz Hausmann (District 3), Tom Lowe (District 4), Emma Darnell (District 5), Joan Garner (District 6), and William Edwards (District 7), and Tax Commissioner Arthur Ferdinand are the named respondents in the petition, filed August 06, 2014, by attorney Josh Belinfante.
Pitts, Hausmann, and Garner voted against the millage rate increase. Garner switched her vote from January 27, 2014, when she approved the budget that included the millage increase.
Fulton County sources have told Atlanta Progressive News that legal battle is part of a grand scheme to make it easier for the residents of north Fulton County to re-create Milton County, an effort being led by Rep. Jones for at least five years.
“I am not stressed about it [the lawsuit]. It is an infringement of the Home Rule,” Chairman John Eaves told APN.
According to the Handbook for Georgia Mayors and Councilmembers, “Under the Home Rule Act the governing authority of a municipal corporation has the power to adopt clearly reasonable ordinances, resolutions or regulations relating to its property, affairs, and local government for which no provision has been made by general law and which are not inconsistent with the state constitution or any applicable charter provision.”
The County is arguing that the Legislature’s 2013 bill, which purports to suspend Fulton County’s full taxing authority through 2015, was not a general law, but was a local law, because it only applies to Fulton County.
Furthermore, the General Assembly cannot pass any local law to repeal, modify, or supersede any action taken by a municipal governing authority under this statute except with respect to matters reserved exclusively to the General Assembly.
The Home Rule Act was created in 1965.
When asked if the dispute is an issue of state or local supremacy, Eaves agreed.
“We are defending our right to support the people of Fulton County. Programs for HIV, seniors, and Grady [Hospital] will all suffer if we cannot raise the needed revenue to keep these programs running. If Grady is not funded, it will cripple the entire region. We are doing what every other county in the state is allowed to do,” Eaves said.
Rep. Riley disagrees. “I firmly dispute any attempt to make this an emotional issue. The County has had ample opportunity to rein in spending and still provide services to the citizens of Fulton County,” Riley told APN.
Riley is referring to the three blue ribbon commission reports–two that were commissioned by the County–published between 2005 and 2008, that included recommendations on how to reduce spending in Fulton County.
According to the lawsuit, a copy of which was obtained by APN, the timeline of laws and votes regarding approved millage rate increases are as follows:
· – 1951 the Georgia General Assembly put Law No. 46 (“1951 Amendment”) to voters, who approve to authorize the General Assembly to set the “date or time when the fiscal authorities (Fulton County) shall make or fix the levy of ad valorem taxes and the amount of assessments and other charges to be made for any purpose against property or property owners.”
· – Fulton County ordinances recognize the controlling authority of the 1951 Amendment
· – In 1983, Georgians adopted the current State Constitution (the “1983 Constitution), which incorporated all the previously-enacted local constitutional amendment [sic] that the General Assembly continued by legislative act prior to July 1, 1987.
· – In 1986, the General Assembly passed Law Number 1055 (the “1986 Act”) which expressly continued in force the 1951 Amendment.
· – In 1991, the General Assembly acted pursuant to the 1951 Amendment, and it revised the procedural manner in which Fulton County could raise the millage rate.
· – Fulton County acknowledges that the 1951 Amendment and 1991 Act remain effective.
· – In 2013, the General Assembly passed House Bill 604 that amends the procedure set forth in the 1991 Act. Relevant to this dispute, the legislation suspends, until January 1, 2015, any proceedings by Fulton County to raise the millage rate.
“The case is simple: the State Constitution empowers the General Assembly to set forth the procedures by which Fulton County may raise the millage rate. Acting pursuant to that constitutional authority, the General Assembly suspended Fulton County’s ability to raise the millage rate through January 1, 2015,” the lawsuit states.
“A majority of the Fulton County Commission members ignored the constitutional limitations on its authority, and they illegally voted to increase Fulton County property taxes by over 17% on August 6, 2014. The question this case presents, therefore, is whether a local government can take an action that subjugates the state legislature from exercising its constitutional authority. The answer is ‘no,’” the lawsuit states.
According to Riley, the suit has asked for expediency and could be decided in as little as thirty days. The case has been assigned to Fulton County Superior Court Judge Robert McBurney, and the Plaintiffs are seeking a temporary restraining order to prevent the millage rate from increasing prior to a final ruling in the case.
Stay tuned to Atlanta Progressive News for additional coverage on the 2014 millage rate increase.