Tuesday, November 08, 2011

North-south fight over idle tax funds will rage on.

Many thanks to Travis Allen for bringing this story to readers attention.

By Johnny Edwards
The Atlanta Journal-Constitution

The Fulton commission's decision last month to move $221,000 of Johns Creek's and Milton's leftover taxes into the countywide general fund infuriated the northside, re-galvanizing the movement to break off Milton County.

But it turns out the county won't be taking hundreds of thousands of dollars after all -- at least not yet -- and the north vs. south fight over where the funds should go will rage on. It's more about principle than the money itself, north Fulton Commissioner Liz Hausmann said.

"What I'm hearing from my constituents is this not only reinvigorates the call for Milton County," she said, "but also the reasons the cities were formed in the first place."The Finance department has finished an audit and decided that -- under the wording of the motion that six of seven commissioners approved -- only a smidgen of the money can be touched. All that could be moved is interest earned off funds sitting idle in the county's coffers for years -- about $12,700 from Milton's sum and $531 from Johns Creek's sum, according to county spokeswoman Ericka Davis.

Commissioner Robb Pitts made the motion to put the money toward some countywide purpose in hopes of ending a war of words between northside and southside leaders laying claim to it. Pitts said that if the first vote didn't cover the full $221,000, he'll have to make another motion and adjust the language.

"My involvement in it was to bring some sense to it and bring it to a fair and equitable conclusion," Pitts said. "The intent was not for (the money) to just sit there."
What complicated his motion: a last-minute stipulation inserted by County Attorney David Ware, disqualifying any funds that "relate to tax, fee and/or assessment liabilities that were incurred after the effective date of the Shafer Amendment."

The Shafer Amendment was state legislation enacted in 2005, barring the use of money raised in a specific area of the county from being spent somewhere else.

The $221,000 in question came from taxes levied on Johns Creek and Milton before they formed into cities in late 2006, when they were still part of the unincorporated county and paid a special tax for municipal-type services such as police, fire protection, parks and planning.

North Fulton leaders say putting taxes collected for that purpose into the countywide fund -- for such things as courts, the jail, libraries, senior centers and health services -- would be illegal.

"If Fulton wants to move the money into the general fund, which some call the slush fund, then they're welcome to do that,"
Johns Creek Mayor Mike Bodker said. "But I think it will come with consequences."
Commissioner William "Bill" Edwards initially wanted the monies transferred to unincorporated south Fulton -- his district -- arguing that since they were paid into the special services fund, that's where they belong now. He already succeeded in getting $12,500 from Milton's sum moved after discovering that the south's money had been erroneously spent on upkeep of Providence Park, in Milton, which the county is still decontaminating.

If no law requires the county to give up the $221,000, it shouldn't sit on it while facing a budget deficit, Edwards said.

"You can't stick taxpayers' money under a mattress at your house," he said.

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