By David Pendered
A Cobb County senior judge is slated to make at least the initial ruling in two lawsuits regarding the authority of Fulton County’s Board of Commissioners to set the tax rate higher than set by a state law enacted in 2013.
In an order signed Wednesday, Cobb County Senior Superior Court Judge Grant Brantley was assigned to hear the two related cases. The issues at stake speak to the authority of the state to set a cap on the tax rate that Fulton commissioners can set to fund county services.
Fulton County Chairman John Eaves describes the case as precedent setting. He says the taxing authority of all of Georgia’s 159 counties, and more than 500 municipalities, could eventually be subjected to the final outcome of the Fulton County cases.
“If it’s Fulton County today, who’s next?” Eaves said. “If the state has an issue with one county and they prevail, what prohibits them from going after another county next? Or after a municipality, next?”
Brantley is likely to make the only initial ruling because an appeal is likely, regardless of which side loses.
The case was moved to Cobb County on Tuesday, when Fulton County Superior Court Judge Robert McBurney sent the case to Cobb County Superior Court Judge Lark Ingram, Cobb’s administrative judge. Ingram assigned the case to Brantley on Wednesday, court records show.
In a nutshell, House Speaker Pro Tem Jan Jones and others filed a lawsuit to enforce a state law, which they sponsored, that forbids a tax rate increase higher than the roll-back, which generally accompanies rising property values. Fulton commissioners have enacted a 17 percent tax rate increase, which is a rate greater than the roll-back. The lawsuit seeks to prevent the higher tax rate from being collected until a court determines whether the county has the authority to levy the rate.
In addition, Sandy Springs attorney Robert Proctor has filed a lawsuit on behalf of his wife that contends the tax hike is illegal, and seeks to compel Fulton Tax Commissioner Arthur Ferdinand to seize any revenues that result from the higher tax rate and return them to taxpayers.
Swirling through all this conversation is the effort to enable north Fulton voters to vote to re-create Milton County and have it provide their county-based services.
While the Milton County effort percolates, north Fulton lawmakers have taken the interim step of enabling the incorporation of cities in north Fulton. The new city governments take control from Fulton County of hot-button issues including zoning, code enforcement, public safety, and parks and recreation.
The lawsuits bring together a collection of advocates with experience in the debate over Fulton County spending:
- Jones has said, “We can cut Fulton County down to size until we get Milton County,” according to a report in ajc.com.
- Josh Belinfante, the lawyer for Jones’ lawsuit, served on the Sandy Springs Charter Review Commission in 2011. Belinfante has provided legal advice to then Gov. Sonny Perdue, served as vice chairman of the State Ethics Commission in 2011-2011, and made his first run for public office in 2012 as a Republican candidate for the seat won by Sen. Hunter Hill.
- Proctor emerged in the early 1990s as a critic of spending by the Grady Health System and has taken multiple government functions to task in the intervening years.
Eaves said the commission now is proceeding with in-house legal counsel.
The new state law at issue is House Bill 604. The measure sailed through the Legislature – Jones and others introduced it March 13, 2013 and both chambers had approved it by March 26, 2013. The House sent it to the governor on April 2, and Gov. Nathan Deal signed it into law on May 6, to take effect that day.
HB 604 suspended until Jan. 1, 2015, the commission’s authority to levy a tax rate that is to be higher than the rate of the roll-back, which is typically associated with rising property values.
After that date, the commission could raise the tax rate above the roll-back rate, but only with support of a super majority of commissioners – five of the seven commissioners.
Eaves is trying to raise awareness of some implications of the tax cap bill that he views as far-reaching.
“This law is clearly designed to put handcuffs on the capitol county of the state of Georgia and I’m not sure people understand how detrimental this is,” Eaves said.
“For example, Grady Hospital,” Eaves said. “This law would force us to be in a position to cut Grady Hospital, which would have a major impact on health care in metro Atlanta.”
Eaves contends that Fulton has worked with Grady officials to reduce the health system’s reliance on Fulton taxpayers. The annual payment for Grady services provided by Fulton taxes now stands at $61 million, far below the price of $75 million that has been common in prior years.
“Everybody has an opinion on what the [county’s] priorities should be,” Eaves said. “But if this lawsuit prevails, it will force us to make drastic cuts.”