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August 12, 2014NORTH FULTON, Ga. – The showdown over whether the state can single out Fulton County to limit its ability to raise taxes will now be settled in the courts.
The Fulton Commission adopted Aug. 6 a general fund millage rate of 11.781 mills, a 17 percent increase for property owners. The vote was 4-3 with Commissioners Liz Hausmann, Joan Garner and Robb Pitts dissenting.
That vote not only put the county in contravention of the General Assembly legislation barring Fulton from raising taxes until 2015, it also triggered a lawsuit from Fulton County legislators.
Their opponents were ready.
Just hours after the vote, attorney Josh Belinfante, a law partner with Robbins Firm, filed suit on behalf of six Fulton County state representatives, including Speaker Pro Tem Jan Jones, who authored the bill, and one former state representative.
The others are Rep. Lynne Riley (R-Johns Creek), Rep. Rep. Harry Geisinger (R-Roswell/Sandy Springs), Rep. Joe Wilkinson (R-Atlanta), Rep. Chuck Martin (R-Alpharetta), Rep. Wendell Willard (R-Sandy Springs) and Edward Lindsey, the former representative.
They sought a preliminary and permanent injunction against the Fulton County Commission to halt the tax increase. That would prevent the tax increase from going forward at least until there is a judge's ruling.
"We're committed to upholding state law and the Georgia Constitution and protecting Fulton County taxpayers," said Jones.
The bill the General Assembly passed in 2013, House Bill 604, forbade the county from raising taxes until 2015, and then the county would need a super majority of five or more votes to raise taxes.
At that time, the newly redistricted Fulton County will have three Republican districts instead of two, which would mean no tax increase was likely without Republican support.
"We regret having to take this action, but the Fulton County Commission voted to increase property taxes contrary to state law and property taxpayers' best interests," Jones said.
The legislation was based upon a 1951 local constitutional amendment that gives the Georgia General Assembly broad authority on the time and place and the amount Fulton County specifically can levy for ad valorem taxes, Jones said.
Furthermore, the amendment was reauthorized by the state legislature in 1987. The constitutional amendment only affects Fulton County, and the Georgia General Assembly has no similar authority on ad valorem taxes for other counties.
Since the legislation is part of the Georgia Constitution, Jones said it renders the county's claim moot that the law is unconstitutional under the separation of powers counties and cities know as home rule.
Fulton Chairman John Eaves does not accept that interpretation of Fulton's right of home rule.
"I feel operated within our rights as duly elected officials to generate additional revenue for the county through the levying of taxes," Eaves said. "I think this will indeed decide what is indeed home rule."
Eaves noted that when the law passed in 2013, all of the metro Atlanta county commissioners joined Eaves in opposing the legislature's actions because they saw it as a threat to their right of home rule as well.
"It's Fulton County today, but someone else's jurisdiction tomorrow," he said.
But supporters of the legislation point to what they say is a bloated $625 million budget that uses $48 million from the county's fund balance that exhausts that avenue for balancing the budget.
Over the last five years, the county has run through $150 million of fund balance, and now that well is dry.
Eaves said he realizes Fulton spending will have to change and that the budget will need to be trimmed in 2015.
"Going forward, I am prepared to lead the charge of identifying other areas of efficiencies in county government. We will have to figure out how to better streamline and consolidate and do a better job of delivering services at a cheaper cost," Eaves said.
That begs the question why was there no charge to address the budget this year. But Eaves did note there will be three new faces – Marvin Arrington, Bob Ellis and Lee Morris – on the commission (assuming Eaves wins in November where he has opposition for the chairman's seat).
As far as who will win the court battle, Jones said she thinks the law will pass muster.
"I do not think you can declare something unconstitutional that is expressly allowed in the constitution," Jones said.