"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. We're committed to upholding state law and the Georgia Constitution and protecting Fulton County taxpayers," Speaker Pro Tem Jan Jones, primary author of HB 604, said in a statement.
Plaintiffs of the suit are state representatives Jan Jones, R-Milton, Harry Geisinger, R-Roswell, Lynne Riley, R-Johns Creek, Joe Wilkinson, R-Atlanta, Chuck Martin, R-Alpharetta, Wendell Willard, R-Sandy Springs, and former state representative Edward Lindsey.
HB 604, which became effective May 6, 2013, limits Fulton County’s authority to increase the county property tax rate prior to January 2015, when new redistricting takes effect. The bill also required a super majority vote to increase the property tax rate after January 2015, meaning five of seven commissioners must vote affirmatively.
Jones said she researched legislative history before writing HB 604. 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 can levy for ad valorem taxes. The amendment was reauthorized by the state legislature in 1987.
The constitutional amendment only affects Fulton County, and the Georgia General Assembly does not have similar authority on ad valorem taxes for other counties. New local constitutional amendments are no longer allowed by the Georgia constitution, but prior local amendments reauthorized by 1987 remain in effect. Local constitutional amendments have legal parity with general provisions of the state constitution.
Josh Belinfante, a law partner with the Robbins Firm, filed the lawsuit on behalf of the plaintiffs in Fulton County Superior Court on Aug. 6, hours after the Fulton County Commission voted 4 - 3 to increase the property tax rate.
Chairman John Eaves, Vice Chair Emma Darnell and commissioners William "Bill" Edwards and Tom Lowe voted for the increase. Commissioners Liz Hausmann, Robb Pitts and Joan Garner voted against the millage rate hike.
Last June, the county commission voted 6-1 to repeal HB 604 on home rule grounds, charging the "state's action was unconstitutional," then-interim County Manager David Wade said.
Hausmann's was the dissenting vote.
"It's possible there would be some sort of legal challenge," she said at the time.
At last week’s commission meeting, Hausmann also protested the adoption of the millage rate without a discussion.
“It was important for the public to hear directly from their commissioners,” she said. “I did put my name in the queue [to be recognized by the chairman]. Usually I am recognized. This time I was not. I was disappointed.”
“It’s always a professional courtesy to allow colleagues to voice their opinions,” he said. “I’m disappointed, even though the outcome was probably known in advance."
Eaves issued this statement at 6 p.m.: “I am disappointed that several of our state’s lawmakers have chosen to sue Fulton County for doing what every other city and county in this state has been allowed to do, which is to do everything a local government can do to keep itself on sound financial footing as it strives to maintain a consistent level of service to the constituents it serves. Long before the issue arose with the millage increase, Fulton County Commissioners repealed HB 604 as it represented an infringement upon its authority to govern its own affairs. The board of commissioners listened to extensive input from residents and took their concerns into account when members cast their votes. I find it unfortunate and sad this action has been taken to prevent a board chosen by voters in Fulton County from carrying out the duties Fulton County taxpayers entrusted to them. No other county should have its rights to govern its own affairs trampled upon by outside entities.”