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County fights tax freeze on home rule grounds
by Noreen Cochran
June 21, 2013 07:45 PM | 2933 views | 0 0 comments | 114 114 recommendations | email to a friend | print
Property taxes could go up in Fulton County if it wins its fight to repeal a new state law capping its millage rate at 10.281 until new redistricting lines go into effect on Jan. 1, 2015.

Under House Bill 604, even after that date, a tax hike would require approval by a super-majority of five out of seven commissioners instead of the simple majority called for by all other county legislation.

Interim County Manager David Ware said at last week’s county commission meeting the county has options regarding the “unprecedented” law, one of a package of Fulton County reform bills passed by the Legislature.

“I consulted with the county attorney who rendered an opinion that the state’s action was unconstitutional and was subject to repeal under our home rule powers,” he said. “What’s before you is a request to adopt an ordinance to repeal House Bill 604 and restore to the board its ability to set the millage rate at its discretion.”

Commissioner Robb Pitts asked what authority the board has to repeal a state law.

County Attorney Larry Ramsey said its power comes from the state.

“The county has very clear power under the Georgia Constitution to repeal or amend certain types of laws, laws that apply only to that county,” he said. “There are exceptions, but none that apply here. It’s been the core of the home rule provision since 1968.”

The commissioners voted 6-1 to repeal the act.

Commissioner Liz Hausmann cast the dissenting vote, as she did in March when the board voted to protest the cap.

“It’s possible there would be some sort of legal challenge,” she said before the June 19 vote, with which Ramsey agreed.

Pitts said they should brace themselves for a response in kind.

“We’re setting ourselves up for a huge fight,” he said. “I’m not saying we shouldn’t fight.”

Ramsey said the state constitutional home rule provision has a process that the county will have to follow, including legal advertisement.

“It will come back to the board of commissioners for its next meeting in July for second approval before it could be implemented and the repeal is effective,” he said.

County Chairman John Eaves said Douglas, DeKalb, Rockdale, Cobb and Clayton counties have backed Fulton’s position that the legislation is a violation of home rule.

“We have gotten moral support from elected officials in the metro area. We got bipartisan support. There is uniform, unanimous angst about the infringement of home rule by this legislation,” he said.

The bill’s author, District 47 State Rep. and Speaker Pro Tem Jan Jones, R-Milton, said the county must cut waste and improve services.

“Since Fulton County is Georgia’s capital county and home to 10 percent of the state’s population, its shortcomings have a disproportionate effect on the entire metro Atlanta region,” she said in a statement.

The county is “plagued by” mismanagement and inefficiency, Jones said, exemplified by recent examples.

“The county jail lacked 1,300 secure cell door locks for a decade, despite warning from three consecutive sheriffs,” she said. “Mishandled elections last November led to an investigation by Secretary of State Brian Kemp.”

The county can reduce taxes to a rollback rate, which would produce the same revenue as the previous year because property values have gone up at least $500 million, according to Chief Tax Appraiser David Fitzgibbon.

County spokeswoman Jessica Corbitt said the commission proposed a 10.211 millage rate.

“Fulton County has taken a variety of measures to reduce expenditures during the recent economic downturn and has not increased its general fund millage rate since 1991,” she said in a statement released after the meeting.

What’s next?
The county will have a public hearing followed by a second vote on repeal and a final vote on the rollback millage rate July 17 at 10 a.m. at the government center, 141 Pryor St. in downtown Atlanta.

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