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Questions surround some Riverdale residents' sanitation fees

By Joel Hall

jhall@news-daily.com

The City of Riverdale has announced that 82 of its residents will no longer be exempt from paying for sanitation services. Included in that group are seniors, disabled veterans, and the widows of soldiers, firemen, or peace officers killed in the line of duty, according to Riverdale City Manager Iris Jessie.

But one city council member, and some residents, contend a past city referendum could lead to a reversal of the action.

Earlier this month, residents impacted by the fee change were sent a letter by Ann L. Smith, Riverdale's finance director, informing them that on Sept. 16, the city "will no longer be able to offer the Homeowner Tax Relief Grant (HTRG) to its citizens."

The letter said the move is the result of a lack of state funding for the Homeowner Tax Relief Grant in 2009.

The group of 82 must begin paying the $180 fee for annual sanitation services, in addition to their property taxes.

According to Jessie, the state grant funded a tax exemption and sanitation fee exemption for seniors 62 and over with a taxable income of less than $30,000, disabled veterans, and the widows of soldiers, firemen, and peace officers killed in the line of duty.

"The Georgia Municipal Association, cities, [and] quite a few people lobbied the General Assembly to keep this [state funding of the HTRG], but their [the state's] argument was that the state was in such dire straights that the state couldn't afford it and the cities were going to have to do what they had to do," Jessie said. "It was disturbing for quite a few people, especially our seniors."

According to a letter from Smith, "seniors, veterans and families of veterans are no longer exempt" from the fee exemption, as HTRG money "is not allocated by the Georgia General Assembly for the 2009 property tax year." The letters adds that the city is prohibited from subsidizing the grant because "it would qualify as a 'gratuity' to those who qualify."

Jessie confirmed that the once-exempted 82 Riverdale residents will have to pay the $180 sanitation service fee.

Riverdale Councilman Rick Scoggins said he believes a 1999 city referendum was passed which protects residents over the age of 65 from property taxes and sanitation fees.

"My understanding of what that referendum did ... it was for the senior citizens of Riverdale," Scoggins said. "All seniors, once you reach the age of 65 with an income of $12,000 or less ... you would be exempt from city property tax as well as sanitation for the duration," Scoggins said. "The letter is correlating the grant and the tax together. The letter also said that veterans will no longer be exempt. We have senior citizens that can barely feed themselves. I feel like it is only right that we get to the bottom of this."

Scoggins is urging the city to recover a record of the referendum and reverse the action proposed in the letter from the finance director.

While the sanitation service fee exemption only impacts a sliver of Riverdale's 15,000 residents, the change has irked some.

Helen Atkinson, 79, a resident since 1955, said she has been exempt from the fee since 2003.

"I retired in 1978 on disability," Atkinson said. "I live on Social Security. I'm almost 80 years old. I can't take care of it anymore. We need to be exempt from school tax and garbage pick up [fees]. We don't need this."

The city does not a have a record of a 1999 referendum due to the fact that state law only requires that election records be kept for 24 months after an election, according to Riverdale City Clerk Stephanie Thomas. She said the city is checking with the Georgia Secretary of State to see if a referendum was passed in 1999 and if the city can legally cover the exempted fees.

"We need to find that ballot," Thomas said. "I have the state conducting that search for me. We're glad this opportunity presented itself because we need to know what the city's financial obligations are."