A Clayton County Superior Court judge chided representatives of the county commission, and Tax Commissioner Terry Baskin, Wednesday, for waging a battle –– in court –– over who control’s the county’s tax office.
The county commission filed a civil petition earlier this year to try to get a judge to issue an order that would force Baskin to submit weekly tax collection reports to the county; allow commissioners to restrict take-home vehicle use by the tax commissioner’s office; and to forbid Baskin’s employees from simultaneously participating in both county and state pension plans.
Superior Court Judge Matthew O. Simmons criticized each side, during a hearing on Wednesday, for choosing to fight over the matter in court, instead of bringing in a mediator to settle it.
“At a time when the county is in such a position financially that employees are being furloughed and services are being cut, it just doesn’t seem to me to be practicable to be taking up resources, and employees’ time, and the court’s time [with litigation],” Simmons told attorneys for each side.
The civil action brought by the county, against Baskin, is the latest step in an ongoing battle between members of the county commission, and the tax commissioner.
In July 2010, the tax commissioner was arrested after he refused to let county officials take away two vehicles that belonged to his office. The Clayton County Solicitor’s Office later dropped the charges against him. The county also sought to bar employees from participating in both the state and county pension plans at the same time, in September 2010. It was reported at the time as largely targeting Baskin’s employees.
Simmons did not issue a ruling on the county’s request for a partial summary judgment in the case, on Wednesday. Instead, he said he will review the arguments, and issue a written order at a later date. His comments throughout the hearing, however, indicated he may be leaning toward ordering both sides to enter mediation to resolve the differences.
“Maybe the adults in this case can sit down and work something out, so this doesn’t continue [in the courts],” Simmons told attorneys for both sides.
There are two key issues that attorneys spent much of their time arguing over: whether the commission could exert control over the two vehicles that were purchased for the tax commissioner’s office — with money from the office’s budget; and whether the county could order Baskin to submit weekly tax collection reports to the commission.
Last year, the county commission passed a take-home vehicle-use policy that led to county officials trying to take away the two vehicles that belonged to the tax commissioner’s office. After much public wrangling between Baskin and county officials, the commission agreed to let his office keep the vehicles, under the condition that he was now completely responsible for them.
Interim County Attorney Jack Hancock argued that there was no reason for the tax commissioner’s office to have the vehicles. “There is not [one] iota of evidence that says these two cars are necessary for the tax commissioner to do his job,” he said.
Baskin’s attorney, William Stone, said his client was willing to compromise on the matter, by leaving the vehicles at the tax commissioner’s office every day. He said commissioners have not been receptive to the offer, though. “The county commission doesn’t seem interested in working with us to resolve this matter,” Stone said.
Hancock countered, arguing that the county had made a “good faith effort” to resolve the matter, but it “was not acceptable to Mr. Baskin.”
Stone also accused commissioners of “unconstitutional” behavior, and “overstepping their boundaries by trying to exert control” over Baskin’s office, even though he is considered a “constitutional officer.”
The county officials are also arguing that Baskin is required, under state law, to submit tax collection reports to them on a weekly basis. A review of Official Code of Georgia Annotated, section 48-5-141(a) –– the code section cited by county officials in their petition to the judge –– would seem to back up their argument.
Stone said Baskin’s office lacks the computer software to completely produce the requested weekly tax collection reports, and that it needs people working by hand to supplement the software, to complete the reports.
“All of that has to be done by hand, and that’s why it’s not possible to do weekly reports,” Stone said. “There’s not enough staff. They [existing staff in Baskin’s office] are going to have to stop doing some of the other stuff they do to run the weekly reports.”
Hancock said, however, Baskin has not been able to show proof that his office cannot produce the reports in a timely manner. “The important thing to remember is there’s no evidence from anybody that says it can’t be done,” Hancock said. “There is no justification for not complying with the law.”
Stone also argued that some commissioners were acting in retaliation against the tax commissioner for not supporting one of them politically. “We believe they were retaliating against Mr. Baskin for supporting someone who was running against one of the county commissioners who was up for re-election [in 2010],” he told Simmons.
The attorney later added, “It’s an attempt to shame the tax commissioner, and it’s a shame that it’s gotten to this point.”
Hancock denied there was any retaliation involved in the case, however. It was simply “a matter of law,” he said. “We’ve got to figure out what the law says,” Hancock later added.
Simmons told both attorneys that he saw the issues at the heart of the battle between Baskin and the commission boiling down to political infighting between the two sides.
“It seems to me that you’ve got elected officials who can’t get a long,” the judge said. “That’s the whole issue here. It seems everybody could sit down together to get this issue resolved. The issues are not difficult to overcome.”