Editor’s note: Republican lawmakers from north Fulton County recently filed suit over a Fulton County Commission decision to raise taxes. Reporter Newspapers asked representatives of both sides to explain their positons on the lawsuit. Commission Chairman John Eaves responded to lay out the county’s position. The six state legislators and one former lawmaker who filed the suit provided a joint column explaining their rationale.
Legislators: Fulton shows willful disregard
By Reps. Jan Jones, Wendell Willard, Joe Wilkinson, Chuck Martin, Harry Geisinger, Lynne Riley and former Rep. Ed Lindsey
The primary responsibility of every elected official is to serve the interests of the citizens they represent. In turn, the citizens have the privilege to select their elected officials by casting their vote on Election Day.
But when some elected officials in Fulton County consistently fail to act in the best interests of their constituents, provisions in Georgia law provide methods of relief.
For too many years, Fulton County Commissioners have approved deficit budgets, spending more than $100 million in reserve funds. Hard-earned tax dollars have been spent on frivolous projects while core service delivery funding and critical infrastructure needs have been neglected.
The Fulton County jail has been under a Federal Consent Decree for years due to poor management decisions, and instead of resolving this, precious financial resources have been squandered on non-essential projects such as a performing arts center, amphitheater and aviation museum. Other government buildings have become toxic work environments due to a lack of responsible maintenance.
Chronic challenges in leadership have led to frequent management turnover and extended vacancies in key positions. Taxpayers should be able to expect quality service delivery, but in Fulton County, this has not been the case.
Sadly, Fulton County taxpayers have been subjected to this repetitive pattern of willful disregard of fiscal constraints, and the Fulton County Commission has failed to recognize the eventual outcome of their actions – the money runs out!
In 2013, we sponsored House Bill 604 as a measure to perform our responsibility to our constituents. HB 604 limits the commission’s authority to increase the property tax rate prior to January 2015, and will require the affirmative vote of a super majority of Commissioners in subsequent years to increase the millage rate.
The provisions of HB 604 are based on a 1951 local constitutional amendment that applies only to Fulton County, and gives the Georgia General Assembly authority over the time and place that the Fulton County Commission may levy of ad valorem taxes.
We recognized the peril of a tax increase in Fulton County, and the negative consequences that will result. A jump in property taxes – especially when property values and, therefore assessments are already increasing – will force rents to increase, prices of goods and services to be hiked, and businesses to move out of Fulton County. We cannot afford to place ourselves at a competitive disadvantage with our peer counties in economic development.
The Fulton County Commission deliberately chose to violate the provisions of House Bill 604, and proceeded with steps to increase property taxes in 2014. We immediately filed a petition in Superior Court on Aug. 6 to seek preliminary and permanent injunction of this attempt.
The citizens of Fulton County may rely on us to remain steadfast in our pledge to defend their interests and uphold the laws of our great state of Georgia.
Reps. Jan Jones (R-Milton), Wendell Willard (R-Sandy Springs), Joe Wilkinson (R-Sandy Springs), Chuck Martin (R-Alpharetta), Harry Geisinger (R-Roswell), Lynne Riley (R-Johns Creek) and former Rep. Ed Lindsey of Buckhead brought suit against the county over its tax increase.
County: We are defending Home Rule
By John Eaves
Business had to keep going. Cases had to proceed in Fulton County Courts. The restaurants that we frequent had to be inspected to make sure they were safe for us to visit. Our libraries had to continue educating and informing. Emergency patients in the trauma ward at Grady had to be treated. The 911 systems sending those patients to the hospital had to keep serving us. The elections process had to continue so that everyone could exercise their right to vote.
These are some of the reasons the Fulton County Commissioners passed a budget in January including a request for an increase in the property millage rate. The Board of the Commissioners took none of these moves lightly, and we understand why some are not pleased with them. Tough calls are often not popular ones.
As a historic recession forced states, counties and municipalities to charge taxpayers more for services they deliver, Fulton County attempted to weather the storm without taking that measure. We were quite proud of the fact that the last countywide tax increase had been more than 20 years ago. As we asked for more of our residents we did some belt tightening of our own.
We made cuts. Libraries lost hours. Seniors had to pay more for meals. Grady Memorial Hospital lost much of its county funding. Since 2008, our county workforce has been reduced by more than 500 people overall, with our temporary and part-time staff cut by more than half over that period. This year alone, we trimmed $25 million from programs. Our employees didn’t see a pay raise in seven years.
The median home value in Fulton County is around $200,000. If you are the owner of that average home, we are requesting about $7 more a month in property taxes. We all would prefer to keep that money in our pockets, but we also would prefer to keep those services that $7 funds.
As Fulton County asks more of our taxpayers, you have asked more from us as well. The County Manager has begun an extensive restructuring of the county government. We are looking for new revenue streams and additional cost savings to make sure we are efficient. We are centralizing and outsourcing services where feasible.
As for the pieces of litigation filed against the county by a group of lawmakers and a separate one filed by another citizen, the county’s position is that they have no merit whatsoever. The county exercised its authority and obligations under the constitution and laws of the state of Georgia. We chose to repeal House Bill 604 not out of spite for those who passed it, but because government functions needed to be funded, and many have become more costly to provide.
We want the same freedom that is given to governments from Palmetto to Alpharetta, which is the right to made our own financial decisions. A majority of seven duly elected representatives make that call on behalf of the county taxpayers that elected them. State lawmakers would balk (and have) at the federal government taking the same liberties with state law, and would never allow us to forward budgetary mandates onto any of the cities in our county. That is not good public policy and sets a dangerous precedent. It is wrongheaded, and amounts to “Big Government” overstepping its bounds, no matter what government is doing so.
John Eaves is chairman of the Fulton County Commission.