Gwinnett County Tax Commissioner Tiffany Porter must abide by a tax billing contract the city of Grayson entered into with the county commission earlier this year, a judge ruled on Friday.
Grayson’s contract with the county had been the subject of a lawsuit between the city and Porter. The contract calls for Porter’s staff to do the city’s tax billing without paying the tax commissioner an additional fee beyond reimbursing the office for expenses incurred printing and sending out the bills and processing payments.
Grayson filed the lawsuit after Porter, who wanted cities that use her office for billing to pay her a salary supplement in addition to reimbursing the office for incurred expenses, told the city that she would not abide by the contract because she did not agree to it.
Porter, whose office is a constitutional office in Georgia, argued in court that a state law used to negotiate the contract was unconstitutional. Judge Laura Tate disagreed and ruled on Friday that the contract was valid and the law was constitutional.
“In the present case, the tax commissioner does not object to the city and county entering into agreements for the tax commissioner to collect municipal fees,” Tate wrote. “This is evidenced by her own affidavit in which she acknowledges that she has approved and entered into other agreements between municipalities and Gwinnett County.
“The tax commissioner only objects to the agreement between Gwinnett County and the city of Grayson because it does not provide her any additional compensation for collecting taxes for the city of Grayson. While the tax commissioner may not like this decision, the legislature has given Gwinnett county the right to make the decision regarding compensation.”
The court battle — which could continue to a higher court if Porter decides to appeal Tate’s decision — was the first challenge to a state law that the General Assembly passed late in its 2021 session to address the issue of tax commissioners using contracts with cities for billing services to supplement their annual salaries.
It’s a case that ended up involving some legal heavyweights in Georgia, namely former Georgia Supreme Court Chief Justice Leah Ward Sears, who is Porter’s attorney, and Georgia Attorney General Chris Carr, whose office filed two briefs backing Grayson’s arguments in the case.
The law that was used as a basis for the contract between Grayson and Gwinnett commissioners was drafted after news that Porter planned to charge several Gwinnett cities a fee that would essentially be a supplement to her salary to continue doing their tax billing. Several cities quickly decided to do their own billing or find alternative solutions to have billing done in response.
Only Peachtree Corners, Berkeley Lake and Dacula agreed to pay a supplement to Porter’s salary in addition to the $1.80 per per tax parcel fee for billing services. Dacula is reportedly looking at eventually moving toward doing its own billing, however.
Grayson only agreed to the $1.80 per tax parcel fee for billing services, which goes to the office and not Porter, but not any additional fees to the commissioner herself.
The bill was signed into law by Gov. Brian Kemp back in the spring. The law says tax billing contracts between counties and cities in any county with 14 or more cities could be negotiated by the cities and their county commission. That requirement regarding the number of cities became a point of contention in the Grayson versus Porter case.
Sears argued that the legislature can only use general laws to regulate how the tax commissioner’s offices operate. Since Gwinnett and Fulton counties were the only counties in Georgia that currently meet the 14-city requirement in the new law, Sears argued it was a special law meant to only apply to those counties and therefore unconstitutional.
“The 14-or-more-municipalities classification used in O.C.G.A. 48-5-359.1(a)(3) might be a baby step removed from identifying Gwinnett and Fulton counties by name, but it is no less a ruse of generality, particularly where the legislature itself has total control over which counties qualify for the classification,” Sears wrote.
“The 14-or-more-municipalities classification applies to only Gwinnett County and Fulton County, and their tax commissioners, now and forever into the future, until the legislature decides it should apply to another county by creating more municipalities in that county. Where, as here, not only the classification but also qualifying for the classification rests in the exclusive control of the legislature, the statute must be recognized as a special law.”
Carr, on the other hand, argued in one brief that the law was constitutional.
“The restriction of a ‘county which contains 14 or more municipalities’ is open to letting later counties fall within this class, should additional municipalities be incorporated in other counties,” he wrote in his legal filing. “Likewise, both Gwinnett and Fulton Counties can fall outside of the class should the municipalities in their counties be dissolved.”
Ultimately, Tate agreed with Carr’s stance that the law Gwinnett commissioners and the city of Grayson used when reaching the tax billing contract was valid under the Georgia Constitution.
“Accordingly, O.C.G.A. 48-5-359.1 is a general law, as its provisions operate uniformly upon all persons who are brought into the relations and circumstances provided by it, its distinctions are neither arbitrary nor capricious, and the law is therefore constitutional,” Tate wrote.