John Eaves of the Fulton County Commission applauded the judge’s ruling. (John Disney/Staff)
The lawyer representing a group of current and former Georgia lawmakers who failed to stop a Fulton County tax increase from going into effect in court says he hopes the judge will rule quickly on the underlying issue: whether the hike is legal at all.
Following a hearing on Thursday, Cobb County Superior Court Senior Judge G. Grant Brantley denied from the bench the lawmakers’ request for a temporary injunction barring the 17 percent tax hike from proceeding. His staff attorney, Thomas Davis, said a written order likely would be filed soon.
The suit was filed in Fulton County Superior Court and assigned to Brantley when the Fulton bench recused.
Still before the court is the question of whether the increase is in violation of the Georgia Constitution.
“My clients are certainly interested in getting this resolved quickly so we’ll know what to expect in the coming months,” said Robbins Ross Alloy Belinfante Littlefield partner Josh Belinfante, the lawmakers’ lawyer, on Friday. “We would like to get a ruling on the merits before Fulton County tax bills are due on Oct. 15.”
Belinfante said his clients have not definitively ruled out appealing Brantley’s denial of the temporary injunction.
“But we’d like to get a ruling on the merits,” he said. “Once we have that, I think either party would be open to taking it up to the [Georgia] Supreme Court—not that I can speak for the county.”
In a prepared statement, Fulton County Commission Chairman John Eaves applauded Brantley’s order.
“We are pleased that the court ruled today that the county can continue to collect the taxes necessary to provide essential services to our citizens,” said Eaves. “We are not unaware of our responsibility to spend money wisely and in the best interests of our constituents. We continue to believe that the Board of Commissioners is in the best position to know what is best for our citizens.”
Eaves said he was hopeful that the ruling “will encourage the legislators to focus their attention on state matters and helping us deliver necessary services and that they will carefully consider dismissing the remaining part of their suit.”
The suit was brought last month by six current and former Republican lawmakers, all members of the Fulton County delegation. Georgia House of Representatives Speaker Pro Tem Jan Jones and reps. Wendell Willard, Lynne Riley, Joe Wilkinson, Harry Geisinger and Chuck Martin and former Rep. Edward Lindsey filed suit on the same day the county commission voted 4 to 3 to pass the hike. It asserts that the tax hike is a violation of legislation the General Assembly passed last year barring Fulton County from raising the millage rate until next January. The General Assembly relied on a 1951 amendment to the Georgia Constitution, passed by Fulton County voters, that gives the Legislature the authority to decide “the date and time when the fiscal authorities of [Fulton] county shall make or fix the levy of ad valorem taxes and the amount of assessments and other charges” to be levied upon property owners.
The county commission voted to declare the legislation unconstitutional and repeal it, declaring that the state constitution grants taxing authority to the county and that the 1951 amendment does not give the Legislature the right to limit the county’s power to tax.
As local legislation, the county ordinance said, the bill “violates the constitutional provision prohibiting local laws that conflict with general laws,” and is thus unconstitutional.
The commissioners also relied on the Georgia Constitution’s Home Rule authority, which allows counties to repeal or amend local legislation that applies to them.
On Friday, Lindsey said he and his fellow plaintiffs “respectfully disagree with Judge Brantley’s decision.”
“The General Assembly’s action in 2013 was based on a sound legal basis and urgently needed public policy,” Lindsey said via email. “The 1951 Local Constitutional Amendment expressly gave us the power to regulate Fulton County’s taxing authority. Furthermore, our action was based on the changes in Fulton County over the past decade which has now resulted in over 90 percent of the population living in one city or another and counting on these governments to provide local municipal services. As a result, Fulton County must reform and reduce its governmental footprint.”
In addition to defending the tax hike, Fulton County also has asked the court to order the plaintiffs to post a bond to cover any damages that may accrue while the litigation proceeds, arguing that the suit jeopardizes as much as $100 million in planned county spending.
County Attorney R. David Ware said that Brantley’s ruling sets the stage for “the next phase of the litigation [that will] determine if the suit should be dismissed and whether, during the pendency of the suit, the plaintiffs should be required to post an adequate bond because just the mere pendency of the litigation puts over $100 million of projects at risk and may compromise the county’s credit rating.”