Friday, December 17, 2010

The Mendoza Line

With yesterday’s decision by the Georgia Supreme Court not to reconsider its recent Nuçi’s Space verdict, the years-long ordeal was finally laid to rest.  For the coverage of the decision in the Banner-Herald, see here and here (and for my superb complete history of the issue from last month, see here).  The online commentary to the local newspaper’s stories reveals two separate issues. 

The first issue, the one of the most concern to me, deals with the law as it is currently written.  I always thought that the legal aspects of this case were a slam dunk.  The Board of Tax Assessors lost at the level of the Board of Equalization, lost at the level of the Clarke County Superior Court, and lost at the level of the Georgia Supreme Court (twice, once by a verdict and once by a refusal to reconsider).  Its only victory came at the level of the Georgia Appeals Court.  Thus, the Unified Government went 1 for 5 in this case, thereby achieving baseball’s storied Mendoza Line for futility.

This is just the latest in long series of legal debacles for which we local taxpayers have footed the bill: the rental registration/rental regulation case; the attempted Hospital Authority takeover case; the eastside park land condemnation case; the “empty chair” property tax assessment case, the stoplight camera case; etc.  I trust that the incoming administration down at City Hall has taken note.

The second issue, the one that seems to have generated the most online commentary, is whether the law as written is a good one.  Perhaps it is and perhaps it is not.  Regardless, the proper venue for that debate is under the Gold Dome, not in the courts.

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Martin Matheny said...

Stop the internets! Garland and I agree on something.

James said...

Well, it is that magical time of the year. :)

Scott said...

Hat's off to you for your coverage of this issue.

I would think the issue at hand is well-established in case law throughout the states. Does it really matter if our own state law has a smoke-and-mirrors aspect to it since the black-and-white basics are, in fact, established under federal law or at least in case law from the states?

For instance, doesn't the exemption derive from interpretations of the 1st Amendment wherein it is found that the state (federal, local government) CANNOT tax a church? (or non-profit).

My greatest frustration with this case has been the lack of citations for extant case law that should have controlled the issue. Moreover, the ABH coverage never really explained the legislative intent of local politicians who had specifically tried to exempt Nuci's; why not? Finally, the ABH coverage very carefully (deliberately) failed to prod local ELECTED leaders into commenting on the issue. Granted, it was a legal matter, but shouldn't the public have the right to know how our elected leaders stood on the issue? (And whence the GA Supreme Court had ruled, what would be the 'harm' to the case at that point ... if elected leaders commented on the matter?).

Apparently the liberal ABH is seeking to establish some foundation for an independent local attorney and tax assessor who operate outside the purview of local elected authorities. Ostensibly this is to protect the tax-and-spending authority, locally, because the liberal ABH happens to agree with local political persuasions, and, accordingly, the way they spend the tax money.

There is something very UGA-ish about the contention that a local official (tax assessor; attorney) operates without regard to local elected authority. For instance, elected authorities might use this shibboleth as a convenient way to wiggle out of some degree of accountability.

Another example: The idea that an enterprise fund like the Athens WBO 'must pay for itself ... and spend all it makes' twisted into the Athens First retro-fit aka the most expensive, nicest WBO in the state, nation, and world. (This is another example of how the apparent structure of government allows some aspects of it to run unquestioned and unchecked by local voters ...)

Anonymous said...

Wanted to add one more thing ... today I heard on WUGA that ...

Apparently Mr. Berryman and ACC are continuing to ask for some clarifications. Either this is just them being mad about getting slapped down, or an example of the Terminator-like tenacity of the ACC tax man! Now don't get scared, but I suspect the latter!

Anonymous said...

Even the state Supreme Court Justices didn't agree on this case. Even one of the ones who voted in the majority refused to sign the opinion. This was quite far from a clear-cut decision and the Gold Domers need to get their acts together and get this thing clarified. ACC didn't create this mess - the state legislators did.
Not the first time and probably not the last.

Half (or more) of the cases that Mr. Garland complains about were suits brought AGAINST ACC - they didn't initiate the actions. What would he suggest? Everytime somebody sues ACC, the government should just fold?

But, half the truth makes a better argument/rant than the whole story most of the time. Ignorance loves company.

James said...

No, the issue is that the Unified Government keeps losing in the courts - not which side files suit. The truth you speak of is that losing is losing; the margin by which one loses is irrevevant.

And if you are going to ascribe ignorance to others, at least sign your name and do not hide behind anonymity.

Anonymous said...

Scott, to address some of your points:

The issue has to do with an amendment to the state constitution. As far as I know, it has nothing to do with federal law or the First Amendment. State law treats churches differently than other nonprofit organizations.

We did explain the legislative intent. I contacted the author of the law, Jane Kidd, who said she intended for Nuci's Space to be exempt. I also quoted the mayor and several commissioners as saying they supported the Board of Assessor's efforts, although the board was acting independently of the commission. Local elected officials had nothing to do with the assessors' decision to fight the exemption and don't have any authority over the assessors after they appoint the board.

Our "liberal" editorial board (actually, it's generally center-right) has been somewhat ambivalent about the case.

Blake Aued

Anonymous said...

Blake, cite me one article where either the mayor of a commissioner weighed-in on the assessors'/attorneys decision to file the original suit or the appeal? Which article quotes Kidd? Was she the only legislator to try and exempt Nuci's?

James said...

Regarding the General Assembly from a post back in November:

During the following year, 2004, the matter shifted from the judicial arena to the legislative one. Louise McBee, a longtime member of the Georgia House of Representatives from Athens, got the ball rolling by asking the House’s legislative counsel to draft legislation that would exempt the kind of property in question from property taxes. McBee retired from office before such a bill could be introduced into the House.

Upon succeeding McBee in the 2005-2006 legislative session, Jane Kidd introduced HB 370. This measure, which had five cosponsors (including local GOP pariah Bob Smith but notably absent local Democrat Keith Heard), “relating to property exempt from ad valorem taxation, so as to provide for an exemption for certain charitable institutions” and further “to provide for a referendum” on the matter. Kidd’s bill began the legislative and committee processes in the House in February, 2005 but never emerged from the Ways and Means Committee.

Undaunted, Kidd revisited the matter in the form of HB1388 in February, 2006. This time, the bill had two cosponsors (again including Bob Smith but not Keith Heard). The bill emerged from the legislative process on this second attempt and resulted in Referendum C, a constitutional amendment item on the general election ballot of November, 2006. The statewide measure passed by an electoral margin of 68.5% to 31.5%.

Anonymous said...

@anonymous 3:21

Blake Aued

Anonymous said...

Obviously there was 'legislative intent' (if not citizen intent) to exempt Nuci's. I don't know how the importance of the story could have been more serious: Here you have an assessor and county attorney trying to overturn not only the legislative intent but the people's will! Of course, ACC also EXEMPTED itself from Rep. Lindsey's two-year moratorium, apparently, but saying they reviewed all the valuations yearly. That was a lie, too. My point is that either the ABH is brain dead, or they are running interference for city hall and I think its the latter and I think I know why. The fact that Blake's a wormy little partisan liar does not bother me. The truth gets out anyway.

Anonymous said...

Anonymous personal attacks. Classy.

For the record, Nuci's Space and the Board of Assessors both went out of their way to tell me they thought the coverage was fair.

Blake Aued

Anonymous said...

Oh, and by the way, the reason you know about ACC and the moratorium on raising property values is probably because I reported on it.

Mr. Big, yes, from, Live and Let Die said...

Blake, I find your reporting to be biased.

On the other hand -- I and most of the people in this community -- absolutely refuse to lift a hand and either create a real local newspaper, or at the very least go out and 'get' the news ...

Enjoy it while it lasts ...