An Augusta attorney representing five local property owners last week filed a lawsuit against McDuffie County over the fire fee. Plaintiffs Paul W. McCorkle, James S. McCorkle, Roland Leon Hickman, William H. Fluker, and Teddy Lewis Reese are represented by Brandon K. Dial.

He filed the lawsuit in McDuffie County Oct. 12. Dial will be asking for a declaratory relief that this is a tax and not a fee and also seek a temporary injunction on the continuing collection of the fire fee while the matter is in litigation.

“They implemented what they call a fire fee, which is in my opinion and the opinion of the plaintiffs is a tax. If it looks like a tax and works like a tax, it’s a tax. But, they’re calling it a fee,” Dial said.

McDuffie County Manager David Crawley disagrees with the lawsuit’s interpretation of this as a tax .

“It’s not a tax, it’s a fee and that’s been argued into the Supreme Court of the State Georgia multiple times. Counties are allowed to charge fees,” Crawley said. “There are a lot of counties throughout the state that have fee-based systems like this in place.”

The county attorney will be representing the county moving forward in regards to the lawsuit. In addition to looking to the courts to clarify if this is a fee or a tax, the lawsuit also states there was no public notice advertisement prior either the Aug. 24 or Sept. 1 public hearings.

“I think public notice was required for what they’re attempting to do. Before we filed suit, I filed a couple of open record request to figure out what type of notice was provided to the public,” the attorney said.

At the first meeting, which Dial said the county called a public hearing, only one resident showed up to speak. He pointed out that she asked the board of commissioners why she didn’t see the public hearing advertised in the newspaper.

“So I think they violated the notice requirement before enacting the new ordinance,” Dial said, adding that it went into effect and was added to tax bills about 15 days later.

The attorney pointed out he had seen public hearing notices concerning the possible curbside trash collection countywide and said the county knows how to properly advertise for public hearings.

“They know how appropriate public notices should run,” Dial said.

But, Dial said even if McDuffie County correctly followed public notice law this is still a tax and not a fee.

“A fee is an exchange for a service related to the reasonable value of that service,” Dial explained.

Dial pointed out the disparity created by the acreage cap. He used the example of a landowner who owns 75 acres compared to someone who owns 1,000 acres. Both are charged the same amount, $213. The fire fee placed caps on acreage at 75 acres and on square footage at 4,000 square feet for single-family residential structures. There is also a cap of 100,000 square feet for non-single family residential structures.

The lawsuit states, “By the nature of the fee structure, small single-family residential customers are disproportionately subsidizing fire protection services throughout the county.”

“There’s not been a detailed cost analysis to tie the amount that’s being charged to the cost of services that are rendered,” he said. “They put it together in a very quick manner. They’ve not done the legwork that’s necessary to sustain it.”

The lawsuit asks for declaratory relief and injunctive relief be entered against the defendant and the plaintiffs be awarded attorney’s fees, cost of litigation, and other court costs pursuant to Georgia law be paid by the defendant.

A PDF copy of the lawsuit will be made available at www.mcduffieprogress.com.