Mayor Gene Hobgood conducted a news conference on Wednesday, calling for the Canton City Council to move on to “plan B” after a lawyer with the office expressed concerns about the district. Hobgood said he plans to appoint a committee that will review and develop a long-term fire services and protection plan, something that Councilman John Beresford had been exploring.
Only council members Glen Cummins and Hooky Huffman attended the news conference, which was in the lobby of Canton City Hall.
Those concerns subsequently propelled the city to cancel two public hearings set for today to consider setting the millage rate for the district.
City Attorney Bobby Dyer had been asked by Hobgood to get the input of the Attorney General’s Office three weeks ago.
Hobgood asked Dyer to inquire whether the millage rate for the district would be interpreted as a tax or a fee and if the city could collect the revenue from the district this year. When reached by phone on Wednesday, Dyer said he received the phone call late last week from a lawyer in the office.
The lawyer was identified as Senior Assistant Attorney General Warren R. Calvert, the section chief over taxes, said Georgia Attorney General spokeswoman Lauren Kane.
Dyer said the Attorney General’s Office “had had concerns about whether it was a tax or a fee.”
He noted Calvert said he believed the district would be ruled a tax. By labeling the district as a tax, Dyer said the city could not collect the revenue from it this year since it was not in place on Jan. 1.
Furthermore, since the office felt the measure was a tax, the city’s senior homestead exemption would apply.
“It’s something we need to take into consideration,” he said, adding the office’s weight behind the issue is “important.”
Dyer had previously informed the council he felt the district would be interpreted as a fee since providing fire protection to the city was deemed a service.
Hobgood, who said the office’s ruling on the matter validates his veto of the ordinance to establish the district, added the city must go back to the drawing board.
“Our citizens really shouldn’t be penalized for poor planning on our part,” he said, adding it’s time for the city to move forward on the best economical plan for residents.
Councilman Bob Rush, who said the attorney general’s office response was “just an opinion,” noted the city will now have to find an alternative way to fund the fire stations. Rush said the city could raise its general fund millage rate of 6.88 mills and “let everyone else pay for the fire district and not the people who use it the most.”
Rush was referring to statistics he uncovered which revealed the city’s senior citizen population makes up a lot of the fire and emergency calls in the city.
Beresford added it was a “shame” how the issue of fire services had dragged on for more than a year. Beresford said the city had to endure “misinformation” and “bold face lies,” which he said delayed the process of moving forward.
Now that the city has heard from the state, Beresford said the city “has no wiggle room” since it’s already decided not to raise the millage rate for 2012.
“It’s a crying shame, but that’s the way politics operate,” he said.
The council last month decided to move forward with advertising to consider setting the millage rate for the district at 1.25 mills. It was expected to generate about $930,000 per year, which the city would then put toward building at least two new fire stations in the city.
The ordinance that created the fire district allowed the city to impose an ad valorem tax onto property and it would have been collected in the same way it collects property taxes. However, no exemptions, including the senior homestead exemption, would have applied to the tax.
The creation of the district came on the heels of the council soundly rejecting efforts propelled by Hobgood for the city to consider consolidating fire services with Cherokee County.
The council on July 19 approved the district, but the measure was vetoed by Hobgood on July 26.
The council on Aug. 2 then voted to override the mayor’s veto, which led to at least one resident who began exploring the option to recall five of the six council members who voted to override the veto.
The battle over how the city of Canton can shore up its fire services has been ongoing for the last year.
The city hired a consultant, which advised leaders how it could retain its Insurance Service Office, or ISO, rating of 4. The ISO system is used to rate how well fire departments serve their area. The scale runs from one to 10, with one being the best fire service. The ratings are used to calculate homeowners’ insurance costs.