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Leaders pass the buck to judges again

When did the judicial branch of government also take on the duties of the executive and legislative branches?

I don't remember reading the announcement, but I guess I missed something, because that's what is happening.

Just about every decision that's disputed, unpopular, contentious or complex is snatched from our elected officials and thrown into the courts.

Shouldn't the governors of Georgia, Florida and Alabama be able to reach some kind of consensus over water? They haven't thus far, so let the courts decide.

Shouldn't this county be able to work out our differences over how we collect and dispose of our trash? Nah - let the jurists ferret it out.

Shouldn't Gwinnett's cities and the county have agreed by now on the delivery of services to its residents? They're stalemated - so here comes the judge.

Once again, the county is turning to the bench, this time so it can mail property tax bills. For as long as I can remember, elected officials set property taxes, millage rates and the like. But on Tuesday, the responsibility will drop into the lap of Superior Court Judge Tim Hamil.

That's when the county will seek the court's permission for a temporary collection of taxes - an action made necessary because county staff members and commissioners can't get there on their own.

Property tax notices are usually mailed by July 15 with half the taxes due in September and half in November. Today is Aug. 9, only 38 days from when the first installment of taxes is traditionally due, and notices have yet to be mailed. The tax commissioner can't send out those bills until the county determines how much the property owner owes. And they won't know that until the commissioners vote on a millage rate.

Further complicating matters, the county serves as collection agency for other entities, most notably the Gwinnett County Public Schools and some cities within Gwinnett's borders. Those folks need their money. They have payroll to meet. But the county's failure to get the job done means their revenue will be delayed.

To add complexity to the already convoluted, the county seeks a split tax rate that raises the millage rate for those who live within a city and lowers it for those who reside in unincorporated Gwinnett.

Last year, the county portion of the millage rate was the same for everyone - 10.97 mills. The proposed rate would go up to 12 mills for city residents and go down to 10.94 mills for those outside city limits.

So here's what will likely happen when Judge Hamil convenes court at 1:30 p.m. Tuesday in Courtroom 3-I (due to public interest, the case was moved to this larger courtroom):

The county will present its argument for the tax plan. Those who filed an "intervention"- thus far the Gwinnett school system and the cities of Buford, Braselton, Duluth and Suwanee - will tell the judge why this shouldn't fly. More oppositionists are expected to file before Tuesday's court date.

Judge Hamil can then make an immediate ruling from the bench or give it some more thought. In either case, we expect he recognizes the need for speed and will issue his determination quickly.

Keep in mind that the judge's order does not permanently set taxes; it only clears the way for the county to get going with tax billing process. Eventually, the commissioners must vote to set their own rate.

It will be easier, however, to vote for a split rate - something the county has never done - if the court has already put a temporary split rate in place.

Lately, it seems our county leaders have taken what used to be routine tasks and made them about 100 times more difficult.

Once the debate enters the courtroom, the decision will be made based on an interpretation of the law. And that's not always the most agreeable outcome.

I'd prefer to see our government leaders roll up their sleeves, get to work, communicate, negotiate with the parties involved, reach consensus and make the call. That's what we elected them to do.

J.K. Murphy is the publisher of the Gwinnett Daily Post. E-mail him at jk.murphy@gwinnettdailypost.com.