Georgia’s attorney general weighs in on lawsuit against Gwinnett tax commissioner

Georgia Attorney General Chris Carr argues that a new law that seeks to stop some tax commissioners from raising their salaries with per-parcel fees is constitutional. (AJC file photo)

Credit: David Barnes/AJC

Credit: David Barnes/AJC

Georgia Attorney General Chris Carr argues that a new law that seeks to stop some tax commissioners from raising their salaries with per-parcel fees is constitutional. (AJC file photo)

Georgia Attorney General Chris Carr and the attorney for Gwinnett County’s tax commissioner are trading legal arguments in an ongoing lawsuit that could affect the pay of two tax commissioners.

Carr is asserting that a law intended to prevent the tax commissioners of Fulton and Gwinnett Counties from charging cities a personal fee to issue tax bills should be upheld.

The attorney general’s office submitted two legal briefs this month in Gwinnett County Superior Court for the lawsuit filed by Grayson against Tiffany Porter, Gwinnett County’s tax commissioner.

Former Georgia Supreme Court Chief Justice Leah Ward Sears, Porter’s attorney, wrote Monday, “... The fact that the Attorney General filed a second amicus brief in this case, at the very least, is evidence that this is a thorny issue.”

Grayson is working to compel Porter to abide by a new law passed by the Legislature that requires her to collect its municipal taxes without a personal fee.

The state Legislature hastily passed Senate Bill 201 earlier this year to prevent Porter from instituting the new charge for eight cities. Gov. Brian Kemp later signed the bill into law.

Porter still successfully requested more than $34,000 from three Gwinnett cities for collecting their taxes, which will be added to her $141,098 annual salary.

Grayson is the only city in Gwinnett to test the new law by entering an agreement with the county to have its property taxes collected without the new fee. After Porter declined to collect, Grayson sued.

Porter, a Democrat who took office this year, is challenging the constitutionality of the law, claiming it was written in such a way that it targeted only her and Fulton County’s tax commissioner.

The Republican attorney general asserts that the new state law is constitutional. “Commissioner Porter is bound to perform these additional duties as she is bound to perform her other duties to the extent that she remains in her position,” Carr wrote in the first brief.

The law affects only Fulton and Gwinnett counties because it only applies to counties with more than 50,000 tax parcels or 14 or more cities within them. Other tax commissioners in Georgia also raise their salaries by charging cities per-parcel fees for municipal tax collection.

Sears wrote in a response to Carr’s brief that the law “creates the exception for just two tax commissioners, taking away their freedom to contract, giving control to others to impose the additional duties of collecting municipal taxes, and mandating that those two tax commissioners carry out the additional duties.”

Tax commissioner Tiffany Porter, right, briefly attends the Gwinnett County Board of Commissions meeting Tuesday, June 15, 2021.   (Jenni Girtman for The Atlanta Journal-Constitution)

Credit: Jenni Girtman

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Credit: Jenni Girtman

Tax commissioners in large counties already earn higher base salaries than tax commissioners in small counties, Carr wrote, hence the “logical” distinction between counties with or without 14 or more cities within them.

Sears disagrees, arguing small counties could one day have 14 cities or large counties could one day have fewer than 14 cities.

“The 14-or-more-municipalities classification used ... might be a baby step removed from identifying Gwinnett and Fulton counties by name, but is no less a ruse of generality, particularly where the Legislature itself has total control over which counties quality for the classification,” Sears wrote.

In a second brief filed with the court, the attorney general’s office disagreed with Porter’s argument that the Legislature exclusively controls which counties fall under the law. The creation of a new city usually requires a vote for potential residents to express their support or opposition to cityhood, wrote Assistant Attorney General Melody Chapman-Caskey.

A spokesperson for the attorney general’s office told The Atlanta Journal-Constitution that it does not comment on pending litigation.

The cities of Lawrenceville, Lilburn, Snellville and Sugar Hill decided to collect property taxes on their own, while Dacula plans to collect on its own starting next year. Dacula, Peachtree Corners and Berkeley Lake will pay per-parcel fees this year to the county and Porter.

“The city does not have any additional comment at this time,” Lee Thompson, who’s representing Grayson in the lawsuit, wrote in an email to the AJC. “We are all waiting on the judge’s decision.”